County government - no longer needed

LIKE some it is supposed to serve, Massachusetts government has become flabby. A belt-tightening in not enough. Besides a selective slimming of the state and municipal bureaucracy, perhaps the abolition of county governments across the state is needed. Such a move, as radical as it may seem, has worked well in Connecticut.

Both the scope and importance of county government have diminished considerably since most were crafted in Colonial days. Their few remaining functions could easily be shifted to the state or its cities and towns. While unwilling to wipe out county government, legislators are readying what could be a step in that direction. It's part of a $320 million courthouse construction and modernization bill that provides for state takeover of all such buildings in Suffolk County and one in Essex County.

The legislation also clears the way for the state to acquire and run other county courthouses. It could do so without a county's approval, only if in the opinion of a special watchdog panel a courthouse was not being properly cared for.

Except for some built within the past couple of decades, most county courthouses are cramped and poorly maintained. In some instances, working conditions are deplorable, with little or no space for lawyers and clients to confer in private.

Individual counties simply lack the resources to keep their buildings repaired.

Also ripe for takeover are county jails and houses of correction, many of which are old and overcrowded. The challenge is too great for even the most dedicated county officials to deal with.

There is no way the commonwealth or its taxpayers can afford to replace or modernize county court buildings, jails, or houses of correction without the ownership and control of these structures. Clearly the state is in a better position to get the job done - perhaps in less time and at a lower cost.

As reluctant as county officials may be to give up yet another chunk of authority and the jobs that go with it, transfer of all courthouses to the state could lead to greater efficiency, as occurred when administration of justice was shifted to the state a decade ago.

The responsibility for proper care of the prisoners now in county facilities could easily be transferred to the state Department of Corrections.

The elected sheriffs who now run the jails and houses of correction are likely to oppose any move that would wipe out their jobs and those of their deputies. There would be nothing to prevent them, however, from continuing their work as state employees.

What a takeover of county corrections by the state could mean is a better, more logical placement of new jails or prisons, based on need rather than on ensuring that every county has its own facility.

Prisoners could be moved more freely to prevent overcrowding such as recently forced the early release of certain nonviolent inmates.

Corrections is simply too big a responsibility to be fragmented among 14 political subdivisions many of whose boundaries appear to make little sense today.

The counties, ranging widely in population and size, exist largely for historic reasons. But elimination of county government need not wipe counties off the map. Their boundaries could be preserved as historic reminders of when the center of authority was in England, not on Beacon Hill.

Although often less closely watched than the state or municipal governments, counties are certainly not low-budget operations. Their combined annual budgets exceed $270 million and they have more than 6,500 employees.

Proposals to wipe out or substantially reduce the roles of Massachusetts counties are not new. Between 1918 and 1961 more than 150 such measures were filed.

While stopping short of endorsing abolition, the Massachusetts Taxpayers' Foundation, in a recent study of county government, came close to it.

This respected private fiscal watchdog group noted that over the years some county governments have not only proved inefficient but have been the source of bossism, patronage, and fraud.

It may be time for state lawmakers to ring down the curtain on county government.

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