BARNSTABLE — The county government on Cape Cod is unusual, first, because it exists. Eight of the 14 counties in Massachusetts voted their county governments out of existence between 1997 and 2000.
Barnstable County’s government, however, is one of the most active in the state. It includes a range of specialists that the 15 individual towns likely could not afford to hire on their own, including a floodplain specialist, an entomologist, an alternative septic system engineer, and an epidemiologist.
“It seems many people are unaware of how much good work Barnstable County does for so many people,” said Terry Gallagher, who is Eastham’s delegate to the county assembly. “The list is too long to enumerate, but it includes everything from dredging and water testing to child protective services, recycling programs, agriculture and aquaculture, and emergency management.”
Barnstable County is also one of only two counties governed by a charter, which was adopted in 1988. That charter has taken a starring role in two major fights this year, one over the correct way to spend the county’s unexpected $41 million bounty of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, and the other over the correct way to amend the county’s annual budget.
The ARPA fight turned on competing understandings of which part of the county government could dispense the money. The three-member County Commission and the 15-person Assembly of Delegates hired dueling lawyers, each arguing that the charter said they were properly in control of the funds.
In the end, the two bodies agreed that the ordinance process would be used — one in which both bodies play a role.
Now, the county’s $22-million annual budget is the subject of a similar conflict, with the Assembly cutting $835,000 in personnel and benefits from the Commission’s proposal, and the Commission arguing that the charter requires the Assembly to specify their reasoning for each cut.
The Commission said the Assembly had failed to provide such reasons and then filed a public records request for all records related to the development of the Assembly’s list of budget reductions, including all communication among the Assembly members and any related communications with the Assembly’s clerk, Owen Fletcher.
The Assembly’s lawyer then said the records request wasn’t properly filed according to state law and would be ignored. The Assembly had already overridden the Commissioners’ veto to enact its version of the budget.
Since then, the Assembly has approved some supplemental funding requests from the Commission and rejected others. Funding requests for an I.T. analyst and a fiscal grant specialist were approved with modifications, while a request for an administrative assistant in the I.T. department was rejected.
“The county provides regional services at a scale the towns can’t do,” said Commission chair Sheila Lyons. Instability in the funding of positions makes it hard to make needed hires because it communicates that the job lacks security, she said.
The expenses of town governments rise each year, Lyons added, and the voters support those increases. County expenses also increase, and those increases should be supported too, she argued.
With this year’s budget now mostly settled, ARPA money may move back to the center of the conversation. Only $10 million of the $41 million in federal money has been allocated so far — so keep your copy of the county charter close at hand.