Cellucci Proposes Additional Counties Be Eliminated

MARCH 1999 - Plymouth & Bristol Counties May Dissolve - In
a highly anticipated political maneuver, Governor Paul Cellucci has
proposed the elimination of another two of the state's county
governments. Filed as part of the Governor's FY 2000 budget proposal,
the plan calls for the dissolution of Plymouth and Bristol Counties.

Since
taking office with former Governor William Weld in 1991, Cellucci has
lobbied to end county government in Massachusetts. Due to financial
troubles associated with its County Hospital, Middlesex was dismantled
in 1997, with the state assuming most county functions. Last year,
Worcester and Hampden Counties were also dissolved.

The
FY'99 budget passed last July established a schedule to dissolve
Hampshire, Essex, and Berkshire Counties. Hampshire was dissolved in
January, Essex on July 1, 1999, and Berkshire on July 1, 2000. Cellucci
has added to that schedule by calling for the abolition of Plymouth and
Bristol as of July 1, 2000.

Bipartisanship Takes Hold

While
county observers were not surprised with Cellucci's move to eliminate
additional counties, what was surprising was the inclusion of Plymouth
and Bristol Counties on the abolition list. Both have avoided many of
the financial problems that have plagued other counties across the
state and is considered an asset to many local residents.

On
Beacon Hill, several members of the Plymouth County legislative
delegation have banded together in a bipartisan effort to keep the
state from taking over. The proposal has been met with a cool reaction
from Democrat and Republican legislators alike. Leading the chorus in
opposition to Cellucci's plan is Republican Rep. Mary Jeanette Murray
of Cohassett. Murray's district encompasses both Plymouth and Norfolk
Counties.

"This move does not make
any sense to me. Instead of keeping government close to the people,
where it belongs, the governor is proposing to consolidate power for
the state," explained Murray. "We do not have the financial problems
associated with some of the other counties. In fact, the Plymouth
County Retirement System is one of the best run in the state."

Representative
Thomas O'Brien (D-Kingston) and freshman Rep. Vinny deMacedo
(R-Plymouth) are also expressing reservations over the demise of the
County. O'Brien and deMacedo both represent the town of Plymouth, which
is the county seat. In addition, O'Brien is a member of the Committee
on Counties and has played a key role in the abolition process.

"Rushing
forward with the abolition of not only Plymouth County, but also the
abolition of the other remaining counties, is really putting the cart
before the horse. The Legislature has yet to decide how to handle the
counties' unfunded pension liabilities and capital assets," said
O'Brien. "Another concern in Plymouth County is what will become of our
very successful insurance trust fund in which most of the towns in the
county participate. We need answers before we take this any further."

"Plymouth
has a strong interest in what becomes of the county's land holdings in
our town. We also depend on the county for other services and I want
some assurance that those services will continue," added deMacedo.
"Guarantees also have to be put in place that our county retirement and
insurance plans will remain intact."

'No Logic': Harrington

Bristol County Treasurer Pat Harrington sees "no logic" behind a state takeover of Bristol and Plymouth Counties.

Harrington
pointed out that at a hearing before the Committee on Counties last
year, the governor's office could give no answer to the question: "How
can the state give better or more economical services than the
counties?"

Harrington went on to
say that the taxpayers of his county have invested $150 million in
improvements, including a new New Bedford District Court. There would
be no recompense from the state.

Harrington
stressed that county employees and retirees would be far removed from
Boston when they have a payroll, pension, or insurance question or
problem.

New Leaders For Committee

House
Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Thomas Birmingham have
each made leadership changes to a key committee that may affect the
future of the remaining counties. It is the Counties Committee which
addresses all legislation affecting county government.

In
January, Birmingham assigned former Majority Leader Thomas Norton
(D-Fall River), as the chairman of the Joint Committee on Counties.
Norton, who did not seek reelection in the Senate for another term as
Majority Leader, replaces Senator Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) who was
reassigned as Chairman of Steering and Policy.

On
February 2, Finneran appointed Rep. Mary Jane Simmons (D-Leominster),
as his new Chairman of the Committee on Counties. Simmons replaces Rep.
Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), who has been reassigned to chair the
Committee on Election Laws. Cabral will be faced with the daunting task
of addressing the vast campaign finance laws during the next session.

With
the change in Committee leadership comes a time of uncertainty on the
prospects for the remaining counties. The approach, as well as
philosophy taken, by the previous chairmen may differ with that of
Norton and Simmons.

"I'm not sure
just yet as to which way I will want to go with these issues," said
Simmons. "I want to take a close look at the issues before the
Committee and at our experience in dismantling the first four counties.
Then, as a Committee, we will decide how to proceed forward."

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