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Some in Brookline want out of Norfolk County

Posted by Tom Coakley  May 5, 2011 09:00 AM

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Brookline this month debates the question of whether, and how, it should remain in Norfolk County after town activists, responding to this year’s $700,000 “county tax” assessment, drew up a petition that would allowed thew town to leave the county.

Any such move would have to be permitted by the state Legislature, which even proponents say is unlikely. But the petition, or a revised version asking that the assessment be recalculated, will be voted by Town Meeting later this month.

Brookline, Wellesley, Needham and a few other suburbs west of Boston share the legal distinction of being in a county.

In 1997 , citing waste and inefficiency, the state abolished or reconfigured all but six of the original 14 counties. Still extant besides Norfolk are Bristol, Plymouth, Dukes (Martha’s Vineyard), Barnstable and Nantucket , according to Dan Matthews , the Norfolk county director .

Many residents of the geographic counties of Middlesex , Suffolk and the others that were disbanded may be surprised to learn that all the former county functions (sheriff, Registry of Deeds, courts), are now financed and run by the state.

The state took over sheriff’s offices in the remaining six counties in 2010 , Matthews said. The Norfolk County House of Correction on Route 128 is state-run and state-owned, despite the county name. The old jail in Dedham is now a condominium complex .

Brookline doesn’t share a single border with the rest of Norfolk county—a remnant of Boston’s annexation of West Roxbury, Dorchester and other abutting towns that once also were part of Norfolk but now are in Suffolk. But it pays Norfolk the highest county tax. Quincy, Wellesley and Needham fill out the top four.

The assessment wouldn’t look so expensive if the town or its residents made much use of county services like the Presidents Golf Course in Wollaston , the Agricultural High School in Walpole , or engineering services. The county also runs the Registry of Deeds, but registries are active even in dissolved counties where they are just run by the state, which is what Brookline activists assume would happen in their case.

“About all they do for us is keep the local courthouse,” said Fred Levitan, a petition author.

The courthouse on Washington Street , the building next to the police and fire stations, is owned and maintained by the county. Chief of Police Daniel O’Leary has fought many times to preserve the court. Having it within walking distance of the lockup allows patrol officers to remain on the beat instead of transporting prisoners to court, said Lt. Philip Harrington .

But since the court functions are run by the state, the decision to keep the courthouse or close it is really up to the Trial Court system, according to Matthews .

His argument to the town, however, is that without its county affiliation, there is no real reason for the state to keep the court house open.

“The county has been an effective advocate” for keeping the courthouse open, because of something known as its “judicial affiliation” with Norfolk County.

Other benefits the town uses include the agricultural high school (one student from Brookline is enrolled, at an $18,000 in-county discount), and joint grant applications worth about $170,000 since 2006 to Brookline, Matthews said.

But petition proponents say these are paltry compared to the expense.

“I know the Legislature won’t let us out,” said Fred Lebow. “But maybe, down the road, they’ll agree to dissolve the county.”

The three elected county commissioners can’t support Brookline leaving Norfolk County, Matthews said, because that would mean higher county taxes for the remaining 27 communities . All of them are liable for county retirees’ pensions and health care. They are responsible for those who worked for the now-defunct county hospital, those who retired from the sheriff’s office (as of 2010 its current costs are funded by the state), from the county courts (assumed by the state in 1978) and from the agricultural high school.

The total amounts to about $100 million , according to Matthews. It’s not clear whether Brookline, should its petition be successful, would be absolved of its portion of this retiree cost. In the dissolved counties, municipalities contributed to county pensions until they were paid in full.

Matthews said that the Brookline petition “underscores that it would be better to reduce our reliance on the county tax.” He explained that the county brings in between $30 million and $60 million through excise taxes and filing fees at the Registry of Deeds. But it keeps only about 15% of that. The state takes the rest, most of which ends up in the general fund.

The county’s costs, excluding the high school, which is self-funded, runs about $25 million , Matthews said.

But Matthews pointed out counties could prove useful as municipal budgets tighten.

“We’re coming to recognize that regionalization can be beneficial, if done the right way,” he said. “Counties could do that.”

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