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Hingham officials to study withdrawing from Plymouth County

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  April 9, 2013 10:21 AM

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Photo courtesy of Plymouth County Exit Proposal powerpoint

Approximately 70 percent of the state does not exist within county form.

After three years of study, Hingham is edging closer to deciding whether to secede from Plymouth County.

One member of the Plymouth County Charter Commission are expected to make the recommendation to Hingham selectmen on April 11, proposing that the town start figuring out how to exit the county government.

“You can’t simply say, ‘I withdraw;’ You have to find out how and if you can, so that’s all I’m asking the selectmen to agree to, seek the means to withdraw,” said Carl Harris, who represents Hingham on the Commission.

Harris said that being a member of the county government, to which Hingham paid $98,006 last year and is paying $111,408 this year, doesn’t have many benefits.

Currently the county government oversees the Registry of Deeds and maintains county property, such as the region’s courts. A limited and shrinking 4-H program and small fire spotter airplane are also under the county’s care.

The decline is in stark contrast to how the county operated in the 1950s, which in addition to doing what it does now, oversaw everything from the Sheriff’s Department and Correction Facilities, to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and District Attorney’s Office.

Hingham wouldn’t be the first to step away from the county form of government. Between 1997 and 1999, the Massachusetts Legislature abolished eight counties - 70 percent of the state’s county governments - relegating the functions to the state.

The six counties remaining – Barnstable, Bristol, Norfolk, Plymouth, Dukes, and Nantucket – pay annual assessments to remain in a county form of government, but really see no added benefits, Harris said.

Coupled with the fact that the assessments are estimated to increase as the county continues struggles with its budget, Harris said it’s time for Hingham to venture out on its own.

“The longer we go without resolving a new charter or some sort of exit or resolution, the more costly it’s going to be to exit in the future,” Harris said.

Despite the proposal, selectmen have yet to support the idea of walking away from the county. They will look at the issue during their April 11 meeting.

Harris said if selectmen agree with the idea, they may want to appoint a committee to study the difficulties, including where current county functions may go, how much it would cost to break away from the county, and where that “exit money” would come from.

For Selectman Bruce Rabuffo, it’s exactly those questions that make the issue so difficult.

“There are other ramifications to this,” Rabuffo said. “The eastern part of the state is different from the western, and there are some personnel issues – what happens to all those people? If we dissolve the county, who picks up benefits of retirees, OPEB (other post employment benefits), pensions? What happens to the courthouses? There are a number of questions that, whatever our bent is, you have to research it and understand what the ramifications are so you can explain it to the people.”

There is also the issue of relegating the function of the Registry of Deeds.

“It sounds like an easy solution, but there are costs somebody will incur,” Rabuffo said.

Selectmen will review the resolution at their Thursday meeting. Commissioners with the Plymouth County Commission have disputed Harris' claims, and said they will attend Thursday's meeting to discuss their issues.

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