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Brookline votes yes to leave Norfolk County

Secession backers point to high taxes

About a hundred years after Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and West Roxbury pulled out of Norfolk County, Brookline is also rallying for secession.

In a move that some fear could cause a political backlash, Brookline Town Meeting voted 115 to 81 Tuesday to authorize selectmen to file a petition with the state asking that Brookline be allowed to secede from Norfolk County on July 1, 2013, but remain within the Norfolk registry district, as well as the court and ­penal systems.

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Proponents say that county taxes are too high and that Brookline does not get enough in return.

“Let’s get us out of Norfolk County,” said Fred Lebow, a member of the town’s Advisory Committee who proposed the measure.

It has been a while, but it would not be the first time a community has left.

Dan Matthews, the county director, said several communities quit Norfolk County to become part of Boston in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, Brookline decided to stay put, Matthews said.

“We think it has worked out well for everybody,” Matthews said.

‘We will certainly take this seriously.’

Chairwoman of Brookline Board of Selectmen 
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But after the Town Meeting vote Tuesday, Brookline selectmen must decide how they want to move forward with trying to secede.

Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt said Wednesday that the board probably will not know until next week what it will do.

“We will certainly take this seriously,” DeWitt said.

Lebow said Brookline pays more than $700,000 a year in taxes to the county government and gets few benefits in return. In other parts of Massachusetts where county governments have been dissolved, such as Middlesex County, the state now runs the Registry of Deeds, the sheriffs’ offices, and the court system.

Lebow questioned what Brookline is paying for, and compared the county to a cancer because the town’s payments keep getting bigger as property tax assessments ­increase.

However, Norfolk Commissioner Peter Collins said the county believes Brookline’s stand-alone courthouse is a significant benefit of being in the county. The Brookline District Court is a tenant of a Norfolk County-owned building on Washington Street, and the state reimburses the county for the costs to keep the building open, Matthews said.

The funding provided by Brookline is also used for legacy obligations, such as county ­employee pensions, Collins said.

He said the county is pursuing state legislation that would eliminate or significantly ­reduce the county tax paid by Norfolk County’s 28 member communities.

The bill would enable ­Norfolk County to retain a much larger portion of revenue collected through the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds. ­Collins said about 80 percent of the revenue now goes to the state, but if the county could keep the revenue it would not have to turn to Norfolk County communities for funding.

The county tax is based on property values, and, as a ­result, Brookline pays more than any other community in Norfolk County, according to Selectman Ken Goldstein. Most of the town’s payments are used for purposes such as pension payments, he said, while communities in counties that do not have a government no longer shoulder that burden.

But Brookline Town Meeting member Marty Rosenthal said he is worried that voting to leave Norfolk County could eventually lead to the closure of the Brookline Court. Faced with budget constraints, the Massachusetts Trial Court has repeatedly considered closing the Brookline Court in recent years because of its low case volume.

Voting for secession could alienate other Norfolk County communities, and politics could then hurt Brookline’s chances to keep the court open, Rosenthal said.

“It’s a bull’s-eye on the Brookline court,” he said.

But Goldstein said if Town Meeting authorized selectmen to petition the Legislature to ­allow Brookline to leave ­Norfolk County, he could use the vote to keep the need for a change to the county tax system hot in the minds of the county government.

Matthews said Norfolk County commissioners have worked hard in the past to keep the court open in Brookline. He said the county understands Brookline’s problem with the county taxes and is trying to address it.

“We agree on the grievance, we don’t agree on the way to address it,” Matthews said.

Brock Parker
can be reached at
brock.globe@gmail.com.
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