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Twenty-five years ago, Gov. Bill Weld made history when he abolished Middlesex County.
Middlesex was established in 1643 as one of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s original three counties. It survived the Revolutionary War and bore witness to the entirety of American history. But by 1997, Middlesex was failing.
The county had been financially mismanaged, having wracked up $24 million of debt and recently defaulted on a $4.5 million bond. It had been forced to sell the insolvent Middlesex Hospital to a private buyer. Oh, and the county sheriff had just been imprisoned on racketeering charges.
Even before this spate of high-profile fumbles, the county had been in steady decline for decades. The state had taken over the county court system in 1978, relieving all 14 counties of one of their most important functions. Their district attorneys, too, had been moved onto the state’s payroll. In the 1980s, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted to abolish Middlesex County’s highway department after learning that it had no highways of its own to maintain, yet employed upwards of 60 people.
To Weld (and many others in Massachusetts), Middlesex’s spectacular failure was a testament to the wastefulness of county governments in general, a useless extra layer between the municipalities and the state.
“Counties have become obsolete, inward-looking bureaucracies with dozens of departments and department heads that serve themselves and not the taxpayer,” Weld declared in 1997 as he signed the legislation formally dissolving Middlesex County.
The three-person County Commission was disbanded and its handful of employees let go. The county treasurer stayed on as a state employee, and the state absorbed the few departments that remained.
Public opinion of county government was so low and Weld’s abolition of Middlesex County seen as so successful that over the next few years, the House passed legislation eliminating Worcester, Hampden, Essex, Suffolk, and Barnstable counties, while Franklin County’s residents voted of their own accord to dissolve that county government. The state took control of their roads, hospitals, and registries of deeds. Their governments gone, the countries became no more than geographic boundaries on a map.
That left six functioning counties, clustered in the state’s southeast quadrant: Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth.
The surviving Massachusetts county governments are less powerful than their counterparts in other states. They don’t operate the county jails (the state does), and they can’t directly tax their constituents. Instead, the towns and cities in their jurisdictions pay them a small assessment in exchange for their services.
Each county makes money from these assessments, from fees collected by their registries of deeds (which document real estate transactions), and from miscellaneous sources like parking fees.
All told, the counties’ operating budgets for Fiscal Year 2024 ranged from about $9 million to about $36 million. (That’s excluding Nantucket County, which contains only the Town of Nantucket and whose operating budget is just $1 million.) Those figures look puny compared to Boston’s annual budget of $4.28 billion, or even Cambridge’s $833 million.
Despite their small stature, the counties serve their communities in important ways. And they’ve learned from the embarrassments of the late ’90s, evolving to do more with less and stay accountable to the municipalities beneath them.
They know, in the words of Plymouth County Chairman Jared Valanzola, that “if we screw up, we will be on the chopping block.”
In 2020, Plymouth was awarded $91 million in federal COVID relief funding through the CARES Act.
Valanzola believes no one was better situated to distribute that money to the people who needed it than the county. It sent more than 90% of the $91 million to Plymouth’s 27 cities and towns, spending less than $1 million, or about 1%, to administer the program.
After setting aside some of the CARES money to buy COVID tests and support the county’s nonprofit hospitals, Plymouth County distributed the rest to its municipalities in proportion to their populations. Brockton used its $19 million to buy a Chromebook for every public school student as they transitioned to remote learning. Pembroke used some of its $3 million to add a walk-in cooler to the town food pantry.
Plymouth was the only county in Massachusetts to apply for CARES Act funding directly from the federal government and distribute it to the towns and cities in its jurisdiction. Other municipalities around the state still received CARES money, but Valanzola argues that because of its exceptionally low administrative costs, the county-level distribution was the most effective way to get communities the most money possible.
“We like to remind folks that if we didn’t exist, those communities would have received significantly less dollars,” he said.
Public health crisis response aside, the Plymouth County government does a myriad of seemingly mundane yet important things. Many of them have to do with saving its cities and towns time and money — by updating their antiquated parking ticket systems, by managing a regional retirement fund for government employees, by operating a dredge that it leases out to towns for cheap. Plymouth has a 4-H program and a county entomologist, who travels from town to town educating people about tick-borne diseases. These are the kinds of services that many towns need, but can’t afford to run themselves.
“Parking tickets, that’s not fun,” Valanzola admitted. “But it’s important, and it’s a revenue generator for a lot of communities. And we’re saving them money while administering that program for them.”
Like Valanzola, Barnstable County Administrator Beth Albert is proud to be providing useful regional programs that “transcend town boundaries.”
This year, Barnstable County’s operating budget was about $22 million. On top of that, the county received around $56 million in federal and state grants. So what did they do with the money?
Water quality is a major concern on the Cape, so the county government operates a dredge, runs a water quality lab, monitors beaches and ponds, and administers a program that helps residents get low-interest loans to replace their aging septic systems.
The county’s laundry list of regional services also includes broadband expansion, affordable housing partnerships with towns, Narcan distribution, education for seniors on their Medicare options, landfill monitoring, emergency planning, food safety training for restaurants, the AmeriCorps Cape Cod program, child sexual abuse services, regional IT services for town governments, and flood-plain planning.
Three county commissioners and a 15-member Assembly of Delegates decide how the county spends its money. These are elected positions; the entire county votes on the commissioners, and each of its 15 towns sends one delegate to the assembly with a weighted vote proportional to that town’s population.
“I’m really very proud of the work that we do,” Albert said, stressing that the county is efficient, accountable, and adaptive to its community’s needs.
Do people in Barnstable County realize all the cool stuff their government is doing?
Maybe not, Albert conceded. Some of the programs that are less hands-on might go unnoticed by the average resident.
In neighboring Norfolk County, Commissioner Richard Staiti agrees that the counties’ big issue isn’t performance, it’s visibility.
When he was running for commissioner, “half the battle” was explaining to people what the job entails, Staiti said. Public engagement was low because few people understood why they should care about county government.
Staiti is trying to change that. ARPA helped raise the county’s profile, he said. (After Plymouth County’s success with the CARES Act in 2020, other counties — Norfolk included — followed its lead and applied for American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2021.) Staiti travels within the county as much as he can — attending events, meeting with town officials, and talking about county-run programs.
“Every time I talk to people, it’s exciting,” he said. “People go, ‘Wow, we didn’t know that.’”
Like the other counties, Norfolk’s programs aren’t terribly flashy. Its modest budget goes toward programs like veterans’ services, an opt-in weights and measures program for towns, and the Norfolk County Agricultural High School.
Staiti remembers the wave of county abolitions in the ’90s, though he wasn’t a county commissioner at the time. He also remembers how the now-defunct counties were overspending and couldn’t sustain themselves.
“I don’t see that happening in Norfolk County,” he said.
Norfolk County Director John Cronin added that in 2021, the county hired a consultant to do a full audit of its operations. The recommendations helped them save money on capital planning, IT, and human resources.
Again, not flashy. But the point is, “we don’t want to sit and watch time go by,” Cronin said. “We want to look at how we operate to make sure that we’re giving all of the residents of Norfolk County the best bang for their buck.”
It’s hard to measure the exact impact of the abolition of eight of Massachusetts’s 14 county governments, because the state and the municipalities took over many of the former counties’ responsibilities after they were eliminated. Still, in some of these communities, new structures have popped up in place of traditional county governments that suggest a widespread desire for some form of regional collaboration.
You’ll remember that Franklin County voted to dissolve its government in the ’90s. In its place, they established the Franklin County Regional Council of Governments, or FRCOG (pronounced FER-cog) for short.
Like a traditional county government, the FRCOG provides needed services to towns. Unlike a traditional county government, membership in the FRCOG is voluntary.
“That means that we say to the towns of Franklin County, the municipal governments, ‘We believe we can provide you with strong services, will you be a member of our council of governments?’” explained FRCOG Executive Director Linda Dunlavy. “What that difference means is that we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to always provide valuable services to our member communities, so they stay members.”
To do this, the FRCOG offers what its communications manager Mark Maloni calls an “à la carte menu of municipal services” that towns can choose to pay for, or not.
Franklin is one of the commonwealth’s most rural counties, filled with small towns that don’t have the budget to hire full-time staff. That’s where the FRCOG comes in.
“We are the town accountant,” Dunlavy said. “We are the building inspector, plumbing inspector, health inspector for towns. Those municipal service programs are voluntary opt-in. Only the towns that want them get them, and they pay to be a member of that program.”
On top of these shared municipal services, the FRCOG runs programs targeting the county’s big-picture needs. In a region crisscrossed by rivers and dirt roads, flood-proofing and climate resiliency are top concerns. And with a rapidly-aging population, attracting newcomers to the county has become a priority.
All 26 towns in Franklin County elected to join the FRCOG in 1997 and have stayed for the 26 years since.
“We have made transformational change in Franklin County,” Dunlavy said. “Over the years, we’ve brought passenger rail back, we’ve realigned Route 2 to make it easier and safer, we’ve built [a] transit center, we’ve done a huge amount of watershed planning so that we know what’s going to happen when our rivers flood. We just do a lot of good.”
In Worcester County, where the government was abolished in 1998, the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission has stepped in to cover some of those regional services.
The CMRPC is one of 13 regional planning agencies in the state. At its inception in 1963, it had just two departments: Transportation and Land Use Planning. But since the county was abolished, it’s expanded significantly, adding a Regional Services branch with seven full-time staff.
“We are the only regional connective tissue between very small towns,” explained Connor Robichaud, the CMRPC’s director of regional services. “So we have expanded to provide many more services, from economic development to … community planning.”
Even in the absence of any kind of county government or overarching regional entity, municipalities still share resources informally, because it’s the time- and money-saving thing to do.
Windsor is a town of 851 people in the state’s northwest corner, part of the erstwhile Berkshire County.
“For the most part, Windsor is a very, very independent town,” said Windsor Town Administrator Madeline Scully. “Very self-sufficient.”
Scully hardly remembers the Berkshire County government from before it was abolished.
“I don’t know what they did for us,” she admitted. Regardless, she said, the town runs well on its own.
But even independent-spirited Windsor is a member of a 14-town regional recycling program, shares a public health nurse with neighboring municipalities, and allows nearby Peru and Savoy to use its new emergency shelter.
Back in the ’90s, Massachusetts’s counties earned their reputation as cumbersome and wasteful. But today, Valanzola in Plymouth County argues they’re the most efficient form of government we have.
“I love the small town feel that New England has and Massachusetts has, but a lot of our town budgets have grown by leaps and bounds, exponentially,” he said. “Part and parcel, I think, because we’re not regionalizing certain things. When we talk about services, regionalization is the future.”
That doesn’t mean the eliminated counties are coming back any time soon. “Regionalization” is a flexible idea that can take many forms — like an opt-in council of governments, an expanded regional planning agency, or an informal multi-town partnership, to name just a few.
As for the surviving county governments, their leaders maintain that they’re not going anywhere.
“We’re not what we were,” Valanzola said. “We’re here to stay.”
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