As part of the latest economic relief bill, the federal government is showering billions of dollars onto county governments to help them overcome the impact of coronavirus on the economy.
Sounds great — and in parts of the country where counties pave roads and operate schools and provide police services, it is.
But in Massachusetts, most of the state’s 14 counties ceased to exist as legal entities years ago and endure only as lines on a map. The county governments that do still exist only handle minor tasks like providing courthouse maintenance and administering land records — and they’re hardly equipped to handle the sudden arrival of a giant check from Washington.
Instead of trying to spend the money themselves, the counties should either turn it over to municipalities or the state, a step that may require federal approval. It’s essential that the money is well spent; the parts of government that play a day-to-day role in the state are in a much better position to ensure the dollars go to help Massachusetts communities recover from the pandemic.
That’s happening automatically in Massachusetts communities where county governments have been formally abolished. Federal lawmakers, when writing the relief bill, made it clear that the money should be disbursed on a per capita basis directly to the cities and towns in nonexisting counties. For instance, the four communities in Suffolk County — Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere — are expected to receive an additional stream of federal aid from the county allocation.
But Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties are estimated to receive a total of nearly $400 million themselves. Norfolk’s estimate is $134 million — roughly quadruple its annual budget. The funds must be spent by the end of 2024 on broad categories such as expenses related to COVID-19 response, government services affected by the pandemic, or investments in public infrastructure like broadband.
It makes little sense in those cases to have these county governments in charge of such an unprecedented amount of cash. Counties — which, in Massachusetts, are led by commissioners picked in little-noticed down-ballot races — don’t have the capacity or expertise to administer funds, or even interpret government rules to keep track of all the spending. Although the exact services provided by the remaining counties differ, none of them provide the kind of services typical in many states.
The US Treasury Department is expected to soon issue clear guidelines on direct local aid. The Treasury Department should allow county governments with limited functions, such as the six in Massachusetts, to pass responsibility for the funds to the state or send the money directly to cities and towns on a per capita basis.
Plymouth County went through a similar dilemma last year when the first coronavirus relief bill was enacted, the CARES Act. Under that law, certain eligible local government entities could receive aid directly and, with some controversy, Plymouth County chose to do so. It got $90 million in federal funds, an amount nearly nine times larger than its annual budget. State officials asked Plymouth to let them administer the money, to no avail. As a Brockton city councilor, who was against the commissioners controlling the funds, told the Globe at the time: “Is there anything more frightening than putting $90 million into the hands of three part-time officials?”
Plymouth County commissioners even ignored timely objections and warnings from the state inspector general and set up a program to disburse the coronavirus aid to its 27 communities. Glenn Cunha, the state’s IG, should know: In 2019 his office criticized the county’s dredging program in a report concluding that the program had been “poorly executed and provided little value to the communities it serves.” For instance, an excavator that the county bought in 2015 for $212,000 sat unused in a garage for years.
County governments are quirky, vestigial parts of Massachusetts government, dating from before the Revolution. In other states, where counties provide important services, it made perfect sense to give money to counties. But the implementation of the law needs to be flexible enough to recognize that some counties aren’t suited to such an important job. The federal government should mandate counties like Plymouth either transfer the money directly to municipalities — or hand the funds off to the state.
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