Editorial: A new sheriff in town
Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan for the state to take over the remaining seven sheriff departments still run by counties is one that makes fiscal and administrative sense in adding cost certainty to budget planning and providing a level playing field for all correctional facilities and sheriff’s offices.
While some county officials are wary that the proposal is a precursor to ending county government – and we can only hope it is – the measure is a common sense attempt to take the volatility out of the annual funding dance, while still keeping a sheriff elected by and accountable to the county voters.
The legislation is aimed at Plymouth, Norfolk, Bristol, Barnstable, Suffolk, Nantucket and Dukes counties, which struggle annually to avoid running in the red while the other seven counties, already under state control, are free to do what they were meant to do – provide safe and secure correctional facilities and administer community support programs.
Under Patrick’s plan, the portion of the deeds excise tax – 10.62 percent – that currently funds sheriff’s departments would merely shift to the state’s general fund, along with other revenues such as federal inmates payments, to cover the count
The counties would no longer have to burden the so-called “maintenance of effort” payments. In Norfolk County, with an annual sheriff’s budget of about $35 million, that payment is roughly $1.2 million while in Plymouth County, where the sheriff’s department budget is $60 million, the maintenance of effort payment is $414,000. In nearby Barnstable County, the payment is $2.3 million. Quite a disparity that would cease under a state takeover.
Sheriff’s department employees would become state employees, and their health and pension benefits would be administered by the Group Insurance Commission and state pension board.
That is a little more difficult to quantify in savings because some pension plans are not fully funded and the health plans are not the Cadillacs offered by the self-funded county programs, but for taxpayers, it would mean millions. In Barnstable, for instance, the savings would amount to about $3 million annually.
There must be something appealing in the plan for a Republican such as Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph D. MacDonald Jr. and Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti to give it their initial endorsements.
Like all proposals, the devil is in the details and there are some questions that need to be answered before the bill is passed, such as who picks up the remaining 19 years of debt service on the new Plymouth County Correctional Facility.
But overall, this measure goes a long way toward stabilizing the rough ride that sheriff’s
departments have had in recent fiscal years, and would do much to maintain professional oversight and administration of an essential service.