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Hingham officials discuss possibility of leaving Plymouth County

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  June 13, 2012 03:54 PM

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Hingham town officials have begun conversations about leaving Plymouth County, in light of difficult financial times for the regional organization.

Discussion began after Hingham town officials received an update on the county on June 7 by Carl Harris, Hingham's and Hull’s representative to the Plymouth County Charter Commission.

According to Harris, the county is struggling financially, and is looking to amend its operations in the form of a special charter that would bring in more cash.

The charter, which has to be approved by the state Legislature and then approved in a November 2012 ballot by member towns, would increase the amount the county takes from recording fees, state stamps, and deed excise taxes.

Currently, the state receives the vast majority of those funds. Under the proposal, the county's share would rise from 10.25 percent of those funds to 42.4 percent.

Plymouth County is desperate for that money, said Hingham Town Administrator Ted Alexiades, who said the county is selling off its assets in order to balance its budget.

“The county is in trouble, there is no doubt about it,” Alexiades said. “They are selling buildings and land. And they use the proceeds from that sale to fund their operations for fiscal year 2012. Yet fiscal year 2012 is closing and they haven’t sold that piece of property. That’s a problem.”

Additionally, the county is restricted in how it can use the proceeds of such sales.

It isn’t prudent fiscal management, Alexiades said.

“The implication is fairly clear, in that eventually if that’s how you’re going to finance operations, you wont have any more assets. How many pieces of land to sell before you have no more?” he said.

Additionally, the county’s assets (approximately $16 million) are not enough to offset the county’s liabilities ($30 million). If the organization goes into bankruptcy, it might have to turn to the towns to help pay for the remaining $14 million.

With a district that makes up 7.6 percent of the county, Alexiades said Hingham would end up owing approximately $2 million.

Yet according to Alexiades, Hingham barely uses any of the county’s services – which consist of the Registry of Deeds, maintenance of county property, the 4H cooperative extension, a parking program, a fire spotter airplane, and smaller regional services.

Contrary to commonly held beliefs, the county does not run such things as courts, the sheriff's department, or the Plymouth County Pension System, which are independent or state agencies.

The tax the town pays to be a part of the county has also increased in recent years.

According to figures from the state Department of Revenue, Hingham is paying $108,000 in taxes to Plymouth County this fiscal year, up sharply from $98,000 in FY11. As the county's finances deteriorate, town officials are concerned about how that tab could rise in future years.

Overall, it might make more sense to bond off the $2 million and leave the county rather than continue to pay over $100,000 a year with the threat of financial collapse looming above their heads, he said.

Before leaving the county altogether, however, Alexiades said selectman Chair Laura Burns, who is sitting on the executive committee for the county, will see what fiscal steps to take to right the ship.

There will also be an analysis of what benefits the county can provide to the communities that might be different from what the county currently does.

It's a discussion of deciding what form of government is best moving forward.

"Most services across America are run on a county level. Here we do it differently, we do it on a town level. And that overlap has gotten a lot of the counties seeing the services they supply erode and their existence in Massachusetts is on decline," Alexiades said. "County government can be enormously effective…it is the ultimate regionalization. ... [but] there is some overlap to be viewed caustiously, because taxpayers cant afford to pay for duplicate service."

Although the town is contemplating its next step, officials have not many any decisions.

"By no means is anyone advocating for this. It’s just a discussion. …our plan is to [first] look at the county, see if we can help,” Alexiades said.

For a more detailed slideshow of what the County does, click here.

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