Hingham officials say debate about whether to secede from Plymouth County has just begun after meeting with members of the Plymouth County Charter Commission and Plymouth County Commissioners last week.
“I think it’s going to be a long discussion,” said Selectman Laura Burns in a phone interview.
For many, the discussion on leaving the county ended last year. The charter commission, consisting of representatives from around the county, was established in 2010 to study whether the Plymouth County government should be disbanded and if not, create a charter for it. The commission subsequently voted not to disband, and approved a charter last April.
Yet Carl Harris, who represented Hingham and Hull on the commission, recently revived the discussion by bringing a secession proposal to the Hingham selectmen.
Though majority in the county, which consists of 27 South Shore communities, dispute the idea that the organization is too expensive or offers too little services, Harris’s statements have had an impact with Hingham officials, who would like to study the issue further.
“I would like to see their first attention on being getting rid of the tax the towns pay … “ Burns said. “And if they are funded [by themselves] and want to do regional stuff, we’d be on board with that…we’d be happy to participate in any way that helps the town. But first we have to stop the bleeding.”
Burns said the town’s main concerns revolve around cost. Last year, Hingham paid a $98,006 tax to be part of the county. This year, that assessment went up to $111,408.
The assessment, charged to every Plymouth County town to pay for services, is mainly based on property assessments. Towns with higher property assessments take on more of the burden of the county’s cost.
Thus, though most communities would see a 2.5 percent increase from year to year, Hingham’s assessment has risen more than that as their property assessments have grown faster than other South Shore towns.
“That’s an issue right now. [$111,000] – that’s two teachers. What are the services that are worth giving up two teachers?” Burns said.
Yet the selectmen won’t be quick to jump to any conclusions. The League of Women Voters is studying the issue now, and town officials will look at their conclusions before making up their mind.
Burns also said she wants to see how the new Board of Commissioners – each with experience in municipal government - changes things. One of the charter commission's acts was to enlarge the size of that board.
“They really get it. They understand the issues and are attempting to grapple with them. They aren’t in denial about this at all. They are asking for time to figure this out,” Burns said.
Dan Pallotta, chairman of the Plymouth County Board of Commissioners, agreed that some things are in need of change, including how revenue from the Registry of Deeds is divided between the county and state, and who pays the Sherriff’s Department retirement costs. .
The county is also still handling the retirement costs associated with the Sherriff’s Department, which became a state function in 2010.
Even with those discrepancies, which the Commissioners are hoping to fix with bills filed at the state, Pallotta said the county provides efficiencies that the state cannot.
“Anything the state does cost more money than the county. We want to keep local money local and keep decisions local,” Pallotta said, pointing to the cost of operating the Sheriff’s department, which has since grown since it was taken over by the state.
The county also has purchasing power to buy things in bulk for communities, saving individual towns money. Not to mention the Registry of Deeds service and the courthouse oversight, which Pallotta said the county does well.
“There [were] eight counties disbanded between 1997 and 2001, and some of those wish they had counties back, some don’t. Some were mismanaged…Plymouth County is not that. It’s America’s second-oldest county, the state of Massachusetts’ oldest county, and we function to serve our towns and save money. We will work diligently every day to do so.”
Though the county’s services have diminished over time, Pallotta said there is a commitment to expand what the county does, including regionalizing efforts on sea wall and dredging permitting, as well as energy and trash contracts.
John Donahue, chairman of the Plymouth County Charter Commission, further drove the point home, saying that even if the towns wanted to secede, the cost would outweigh whatever hoped-for benefits.
“It was a cost we didn’t think any of the communities could afford,” he said.
The vote was an overwhelming majority to keep the county, Donahue said, and the Charter Commission has moved forward with ratifying a charter to operate under.
In the meantime, the county will continue providing a number of benefits to local towns, Donahue said.
“County government provides real services,” he said.
The discussion will continue at a selectmen’s meeting on May 9.