Friday, June 08, 2012

County Government in Massachusetts

It was 15 years ago this month that the state legislature ended Middlesex County as a governmental entity.  The decision was a fiscal one: the county had become insolvent and so the legislature acted, not only dissolving Middlesex but prospectively ruling that any other county that became insolvent would automatically face the same fate.  Within a year or two, a majority of the counties in the Commonwealth had been similarly dissolved.

While county government went away, the counties continued to exist as geographic boundaries and some offices that had always been part of county government, the registry of deeds and the sheriff in particular, were transferred to the Secretary of State's Office and the Department of Corrections.  The counties that were dissolved were Berkshire, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Suffolk and Worcester.

Some counties were in much better fiscal shape and so they survived intact and continue to exist today.  There are Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk and Plymouth.  (I'm not sure why, but the survivors were all from the southeast part of Massachusetts).  Because much of the funding that keeps these counties in operation come from their registries of deeds, the ongoing real estate slump has put some of these counties in precarious financial straits so there has been some speculation about their life expectancy.

Another "threat" to the continuation of county government has arisen in the town of Brookline which is part of Norfolk County.  Besides registry of deeds fees, a big part of county revenue comes from an assessment on the towns and cities in the county, an assessment that's based on the value of real estate in the community.  The town of Brookline, because it's real estate is so expensive, pays a substantial assessment to the county but some in the town are now asking not only what they get in return but also why shouldn't they secede from the county.  An editorial in today's Globe comes down in favor of the secessionists.

Whatever the merits to this proposal, one practical obstacle to its implementation may be found in the records of the registry of deeds.  Three hundred plus years of the land records of each community are deeply embedded in the record books of the registry of deeds, whether they are on paper or electronic.  And there's no easy way to extract them.  So a before any one community departs from a county, one important and practical question that must be resolved is what is to happen to that community's land records, past, present and future.  If the effort of Brookline proceeds, we'll be monitoring that question quite closely.


Anonymous said...

It has happened before with Charlestown, Hyde Park and other towns going from Middlesex and Norfolk to Suffolk around the turn of last century. It would seem that a switch from one county to another would be easier today with land records being available on the internet.

Dick said...

You would think extracting the records from one registry district and adding them to another would be easy now that they're in electronic form but I don't think it's the case. Certainly it would be easier to copy and paste a bunch of electronic documents into another database than it would be (and was) to hand copy those documents. The difficulty would be in choosing which documents to copy. You couldn't just do a simple query on the existing index because the computerized index only goes back a few decades. But even the computerized index would be insufficient to select the relevant documents in an automated way. Consider attachments and liens: they are indexed solely by the debtor's name and not with any address (because they are against all of the debtor's property). How would you find the relevant liens to transfer over to the new database? It would be a huge undertaking with a shaky accuracy rate. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about how it could be done and I haven't figured out a practical method for doing it.