Brookline’s attempt to secede from Norfolk County isn’t a response to mismanagement, as was the case in the 1990s when municipal mistrust led to the dissolution of several Massachusetts counties. Instead, Brookline officials say convincingly that the town receives nothing of value in exchange for high county taxes.
Courts, jails, and registries of deeds — once the purview of county government — are now fully funded by the state and fully compatible with state systems. Unlike some smaller towns that depend on the services of county engineers, Brookline handles its own public works. Yet the town carries a disproportionate burden because the county levy is assessed on property values. And Brookline’s values are rising while those in most of the county’s 28 communities are flat or falling.
“It’s a total waste of money,’’ said Fred Lebow, a member of the town’s financial advisory committee. Lebow said that a small discount at a county-owned golf course in Quincy is about all Brookline residents can expect for their $700,000 contribution.
Some opponents of secession worry that their stand-alone, county-owned courthouse could be lost if they secede. But this is a simple lease deal with the state-run Trial Court. If Brookline loses its court, it will be because of low caseloads, not because of any decision to leave the county.
County officials are sympathetic with Brookline’s position. They would prefer to eliminate county tax assessments altogether in exchange for an increased percentage of Norfolk’s Registry of Deeds receipts, most of which now go to the state. But state officials are unlikely to go along with the plan and forgo millions of dollars.
Brookline faces a high bar in the Legislature, which must approve secession. But the effort isn’t wasted. Other communities in Norfolk County might examine their county tax assessments and decide it no longer makes sense for them to stay put. This could be the start of a movement.
The number of county governments in Massachusetts has dwindled with no ill effects. There is ample opportunity for regionalization, including joint purchasing, without the county structure. And an orderly procedure already exists for the takeover of county operations and obligations, including pension liabilities.
It’s true that no community should get to cherry-pick which governmental services it is willing to support. But when there are no services in play, there is no need for the trappings of government.