What Does the County Sheriff Do?

The big primary race this year in Hampden County was for County Sheriff. A long-time Sheriff was retiring, opening up the seat for a newcomer. Lawn signs sprouted up all along my commute route, based upon which I predicted that Nick Cocchi would win (I was right). It seemed like a lot of people cared about who’s elected County Sheriff, which led me to two embarrassing questions: 

  1. What does the County Sheriff do?
  2. What does the county do?

Embarrassing questions, because I consider myself a guy who cares a lot about how government works (and, also, I recently wrote a blog post about why local politics are so important and why we should pay attention to them…). So since I didn’t know, I’m guessing at least a few others don’t either. Here’s what I found out.

What the Sheriff Does

First things first, a quick dive into what the County Sheriff does.

Historic Hampden County Courthouse, with the newer, uglier Hampden County Courthouse inset in the bottom left. Sources: Mass.gov and Wikipedia

Looking through various “About Us” pages for County Sheriff Departments across the state, I can see that they are basically in charge of the County Jail – serving summonses, transporting pre-trial defendants, managing inmate populations, etc.

Here is what MassLive says about the Sheriff’s office:

The sheriff is responsible for overseeing the main men’s jail in Ludlow; a women’s jail in Chicopee; an addiction center currently located in Holyoke, but soon to be relocated to Mill Street in Springfield; an after-incarceration program serving 3,000 former inmates annually; and a day reporting center which monitors 50 to 70 people on GPS bracelets per day who are on probation or parole.

The sheriff also oversees a “serving office” with about 15 deputies serving legal papers on behalf of attorneys and other parties.


Other interesting facts for Hampden County Sheriff:

  • Salary: $151,709
  • Term: Six Years
  • Annual Budget: $75 million
  • Staff: 850
  • Inmates: 1,400 – 1,500

So the Sheriff oversees the county jail. Sure that’s important, but a pretty narrow realm of responsibility. Given the limited scope of what the Sheriff does, why do people seem to care so much?

I get the impression that it mostly stems from the opioid crisis sweeping over western Massachusetts; a lot of soundbites focused on how the candidates would address that. But it’s also the only countywide elected office (so far as I can tell), and so I wonder if it draws attention on that basis alone. If you have any other reasons, please post them below!

What Counties Do

This leads me to the next question: If the County Sheriff is our only county official, then why do we have counties? What do they do, anyway?


A Map of Massachusetts Counties. Source: geology.com (with annotations added by author)


The National Association of Counties has a brief history of counties. Basically, the idea is that back before the railroad made traveling great distances quick and easy, national, provincial, or colonial governments couldn’t effectively govern the full expanse of their territory. So they divided the territory into smaller chunks, and called them counties. 

In Massachusetts, counties are mostly vestigial. In other states there is a lot of rural land administered by counties; in Massachusetts, there is no unincorporated land (that is, land outside of a city or town boundary). This means all governing functions are taken care of by either the state or the municipality.* Thus, almost all counties have lost governing authority, with the County Sheriff being the only remaining elected official.

Why we have County Sheriffs reminds me of the kid who asked her mother about birthday candles.

“Mom, why do we have birthday candles?”

“Well, if we didn’t, what would we put on top of the birthday cake?”

Counties are tradition. And traditions die hard.


*As a side note, counties can also act as a way to incorporate a regional perspective into decision making processes. This is one area where Massachusetts lags, with all decisions taken at either the local or state level, and very little in between. One outcome of this hyper-localism is that zoning decisions are made locally, while transportation decisions are mostly statewide or regional. This means that transportation facilities are often trying to catch up with new large commercial developments, rather than being coordinated from the get-go through regional land use planning.


Upcoming Presentation: The Predictable Disruption of an Aging Population

Next Thursday, I’m going to be presenting at MassDOT’s Moving Together conference on the impact of the aging population on transit operations. Moving Together is right up my alley, focusing on pedestrian, bicycle and transit transportation. I’m really looking forward to presenting this year, because I’ve attended it for years, been on the planning committee twice, and yet never been a presenter (though did moderate a session last year).


The Problem: Population Bulge and Exploding Demand

In case you didn’t know, there are two big generational cohorts in the country: Baby Boomers and kids of Baby Boomers (Millennials). These “population bulges” look like this:

Massachusetts population pyramid projections. Source: UMass Donahue Institute, Long-term Population Projections for Massachusetts Regions and Municipalities


“Why does this matter to transit providers?”, you may ask. Well, it’s because there are two primary kinds of rubber-tire service provided by a transit agency:

  1. Fixed Route – This is the traditional bus service that most people know about. These are the big buses that travel a set route on a regular schedule.
  2. Demand Response (AKA paratransit, AKA van service) – This is service required by the federal government for people who can’t use regular fixed route buses due to a disability. It takes people door-to-door from their home to destination, and so is sort of like a taxi service. Some transit agencies (including PVTA) also provide this service for seniors.

As the Boomers get older, we are seeing an increase in demand for paratransit service. This isn’t surprising; we’ve been building suburban and exurban housing for fifty years that only works if you have access to a car. This has been called “Peter Pan Housing,” because it assumes you will never grow old.


PVTA fully accessible (paratransit) van. Source: Metro Magazine


Once people living in these auto-dependent homes can no longer drive due to macular degeneration, dementia, or mobility problems, van service may the only connection they have to doctors, shopping, and friends and family. And we are already seeing an aging population driving an explosion in demand. The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) saw a 21% increase in demand in 2016, putting enormous strain on the system. 

Sorry for the acronym-laden chart; The important part is that PVTA van service for seniors (red line) has skyrocketed over the past year. Source: NTD

The central challenge is paying for the service. According to National Transit Database data, PVTA van service is 5 times more expensive than fixed route service on a per-trip basis (and other transit agencies are up to 10 times more expensive). This means that a surge in ridership is a profound financial strain; with 70 million Baby Boomers entering old age over the next 15 years, it could even be an existential challenge.

Some Solutions

My presentation covers strategies to cope with this surge in ridership. A few of them are:

  1. Coordination with other transportation providers – There is already a bunch of transportation service out on the road; just make sure that someone else can’t provide the trip before your transit agency sends the van out.
  2. Discounted/free fixed route trips – Since van service is so much more expensive than fixed route transit, a transit agency could provide the trip on fixed route for free still save a lot of money. 
  3. Housing Incentives – I don’t know if any transit agency is doing this, but as I mentioned above, housing patterns are a driver of this explosion in demand. An agency could easily spend upwards of $20,000 per year on a single passenger living in a hard-to-serve home in a suburban or rural area. What if the agency took that $20,000 and provided an incentive payment for that customer to relocate to an easier-to-serve location, or an assisted living facility with its own transportation? It could be a win-win for the customer (who would have better access to services) and the transit agency (which can devote savings to other transportation services).

Those are just three of a host of solutions I will be presenting. Also, I’ll be featuring a clip from the Golden Girls to drive home my point! I will be presenting from 2:30 – 4:00 in the Berkeley/Clarendon room at the conference – please swing by and check it out if you’re at the conference. And afterward is the happy hour hosted by Young Professionals in Transportation – Boston Chapter at MJ O’Connor’s. Hope to see you next week!

If the Presidential Election Has You Down, Go Down Ballot

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about how depressed they are at having to choose between one presidential candidate who scares them and another presidential candidate whom they loathe. The worst thing about it is the feeling of impotence in the face of titanic, intractable problems. But I have found my zen while staring into the abyss of electoral politics:

  1. I don’t live in a swing state, so my presidential vote very likely doesn’t matter;
  2. There are a bunch of down ballot races that are also really important and I can actually impact!

Here is a breakdown of my electoral zen, may it help you in your time of darkness (likely strike the night of the first presidential debate).

Why My Focus Is Down Ballot

It’s a tragic reality of the electoral college system – if you don’t live in a  swing state, your presidential vote is largely irrelevant. No one likes to hear that. I don’t even like saying it, because I do believe that having leadership accountable to constituents is preferable to aristocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.

Here is a handy flow chart indicating whether you should fret about the presidential election. Source: Zachary Stark-Macmillan

However, Massachusetts is solidly Democratic, and my vote won’t change that. Since 1960, Massachusetts electoral votes have only gone for the Republican presidential candidate twice (both times for Ronald Reagan)*. Barring Hillary Clinton being exposed as an Illuminati Lizard Alien, the Bay State is certain to go for her in November.

Undeniable proof that Clinton is a Reptilian. Source: reddit.com

Sure, this November I’m going to vote in the presidential election. But my focus, and what I get really excited about, are the down-ballot races: Mayor, City Council, State Legislature, even County Sheriff. Those are the races where only a few thousand people vote in total, and partisanship and ideological divides matter much less.

The voters actually know the candidates, often personally, and party affiliation alone isn’t enough to win support. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, and going to pie eating contests and county fairs are the kinds of things that make or break an election. I’ve volunteered for local campaigns, and it’s really cool to go door knocking alongside the candidate and chat with them about the issues that matter to you. That’ll just never happen at the presidential level.

The Power of the Local Government

The federal government gets a lot of media attention, and for good reason. Around 20% of GDP goes toward federal taxes. But state and local spending are estimated to be around 9% and 10% of GDP, respectively – that’s a lot of money and decision-making being wielded by state and local officials!

Federal (red), state (green), and local (grey) spending as a percent of GDP. Source: usgovernmentspending.com

In fact, back when I worked in the district office of a congressman, about half the time someone would call in with an issue which we would have to refer to state or local officials. Here are some examples of things your state legislators or city councilors deal with, and that you might care about:

  1. Healthcare (ie MassHealth)
  2. Welfare
  3. Affordable Housing
  4. Sustainability
  5. Zoning
  6. Parks and open space
  7. Public Safety
  8. Prison Reform
  9. Traffic Safety
  10. K-12 Education
  11. Post-graduate education
  12. The cost of a building permit

OK, the list could go on for a long time – the point is, states and towns decide a lot of the stuff that a lot of people care about. It’s worth paying attention to who’s making those decisions.

Mildly Wonky Poli-Sci Section

Diving a little bit deeper, state and local government wield a lot of authority by design. That’s because of the 10th amendment to the constitution, which states:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

That’s right – any authority not specifically delegated to the federal government in the constitution is reserved to the states. Put another way, the authority of the federal government is derived by the consent of the 50 states, which otherwise would have total authority over themselves.

Furthermore, Massachusetts is what’s called a “Home Rule” state. The state has decided that anything not already regulated by the state or federal government is subject to the authority of the municipality. This gives cities and towns a lot of latitude to pass ordinances and bylaws on things that the state hasn’t gotten around to yet, or just doesn’t want to deal with. One example is whether it’s legal to park in bike lanes – in Cambridge and Boston it’s a ticketable offense, but most other towns have no specific rule about it.

The point is, interesting stuff is happening at the local level (like this 22 year old who just won the Amherst seat in the State House of Representatives). So instead of worrying about an election that I have virtually no influence on, I’m going down ballot! John Oliver agrees, and if he says it, it must be true.


*As an aside, the idea that an individual’s actions are largely irrelevant is one of the foundations of social science – that really it’s larger social systems and trends which shape things like national politics.



Rail Options Suck, But I’m Not Sure They’re Worth Improving

Politicians in the Pioneer Valley really want more intercity rail coming through the region. At an MPO meeting that I wrote about several months back, Mayor Sarno of Springfield commented that building an east-west rail link to Boston would open up the city’s affordable housing stock to Boston, which has a housing affordability crisis. Meanwhile, north-south rail improvements would improve access to Hartford, New York City, and Montreal, better integrating Springfield into an interior northeastern route. These same sentiments were described more fully in a recently released report, Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) Study

northern new england rail
Proposed NNEIRI route. Source: NNEIRI study.

And it’s true, right now rail options suck in the Pioneer Valley. We have the Lake Shore Limited, which goes east-west one time per day, and the Vermonter which goes north-south one time per day. Even though both these routes could serve commuters traveling between Worcester and Springfield, or Hartford and Springfield, the schedule makes them useless to anyone other than an intercity traveler.

Writing about rail transportation in Springfield, I am reminded of a few years ago when Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert, came to visit Springfield and provide thoughts about how to improve the economic performance of the city. A point he hit a couple of times was that we have got to build a streetcar; the city would be transformed by it. Score another endorsement for rail! 

What’s amazing to me is the persistent dedication people have to rail transportation, despite the fact that it has so many apparent disadvantages relative to rubber-tire service. In brief:

  1.  It is really expensive. The proposed track upgrades to connect Boston to New Haven via Springfield would be at least $554 million, not counting operating costs (see table below); this route would need to be subsidized at $145 per trip, which doesn’t include capital costs. As for streetcars, the most celebrated American streetcar in Portland, Oregon cost several hundred million dollars to construct and carried 3.9 million riders last year. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line bus rapid transit line in Cleveland cost only $50 million,  and boasts 5 million trips per year
  2. Also, it’s really expensive. The cost of riding the train from Springfield to New York, for example, is $47 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on freight traffic). The cost of taking a bus is $27 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on highway traffic). So it gets you there no faster, though is nearly twice as expensive. 
  3. Did I mention that it’s expensive? It’s usually more expensive than we expect. Planning studies for rail projects tend to have ridership projections that are too high and capital cost estimates too low (also known as The Pickerell Effect). A good example is Albuquerque’s Rail Runner commuter rail, which has continued to underperform in ridership since it started service in 2007.
estimated costs table
Estimated costs of rail upgrades in New England. Source: NNEIRI Study.

The reality is that bus transportation, while not as efficient at moving people as rail, tends to be much more flexible and affordable. So why are elected officials stuck on rail? I have a few theories:

  1. It’s undeniably sexy. Even Ayn Rand made the main character of her celebration of fierce individualism and greed, Atlas Shrugged, a railroad tycoon. There’s something about the iron horse which connotes power, industry, and sophistication (while a bus brings up images of people coughing, yelling, and spilling Big Gulps on you).
  2. It’s expensive. Yes, I realize that I listed that as a drawback. But one person’s expense is another’s income. I wonder if the high price tag does not in fact invigorate elected officials to embrace rail because it will do what every elected official wants  – it will create jobs! Just this past week, Massachusetts mucky mucks were in Springfield to celebrate the completion of the factory that is going to manufacture new $2 million subway cars for the MBTA.
  3. It’s perceived to be an economic development engine, probably for two reasons. First, it attracts higher-income riders, and in so doing funnels these high-earners into a narrow corridor that businesses want to occupy. Second, it cements the route to a particular corridor, whereas bus routes could change at any point. Although, in the case of the DC streetcar, the economic development transformation took root well before the streetcar was finished – suggesting that we should just announce streetcars and then never actually build them. Hmm… developers might eventually catch on.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out that I’m not necessarily anti-rail. I would love to be able to hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in 90 minutes, or down to Washington in four hours. But I am a strong proponent of using tax dollars wisely. And for the most part, rail just doesn’t seem to pencil out when driving is so cheap and easy.

So who knows, maybe someday I’ll take one of the added trains on the Inland Route to get to Boston or New York City from Springfield. Honestly, I’d be happy to do so. Until then I’m content hopping a Peter Pan bus and working my crosswords as the road passes by my window. At $27, that’s not too bad.