Brookline’s Town Meeting voted Tuesday in favor of petitioning the state to allow the town to secede from Norfolk County. The town’s legislative body also voted to raise the minimum age in which people can buy tobacco products from 18 to 19 years old.
By a vote of 115 to 81, Town Meeting voted in favor of an article that authorizes the Board of Selectmen to file a petition with the state asking that the town be allowed to secede from Norfolk County on July 1, 2013, but remain within the Norfolk registry district and court system.
Fred Lebow, a member of the town’s Advisory Committee, proposed the move because he said the town pays more than $700,000 a year in taxes to the county based on property value assessments, but gets very little in return. He said other county governments have already dissolved, and the state now runs the Registry of Deeds, the sheriffs’ offices and the court system.
“What are we paying for?” Lebow said.
Norfolk County Commissioner Peter Collins said the county believes the stand-alone courthouse Brookline has is a significant benefit of being in the county. Norfolk County owns the building that is leased to the state for the use of Brookline District Court. Collins said the funding provided by Brookline is also used for legacy obligations, such as county employee pensions.
He said the county is pursuing state legislation that would eliminate or significantly reduce the county tax paid by Norfolk County’s 28 member communities.
Brookline Selectman Ken Goldstein said the county tax is based on property values and as a result Brookline pays more than any other community in Norfolk County, but receives virtually no benefit. He said most of the town’s payments are used for purposes such as pension payments. But he said other communities in counties that no longer have a government, such as Middlesex County, no longer pay pensions to county employees.
Town Meeting member Marty Rosenthal said that he’s worried that voting to leave Norfolk County could eventually lead to the closure of the Brookline Court, which the state Administrative Office of the Trial Court has repeatedly considered for closure in recent years because of budget constraints and a low case volume at the Brookline court.
Rosenthal said voting to leave Norfolk County could alienate other communities in the county and politics could then hurt the chances of the Brookline court staying open.
"It's a bull's eye on the Brookline court," he said.
Goldstein also said there is a “reasonable fear” that the town is not helping its courthouse by advancing the proposal to secede from the county.
But Goldstein said if Town Meeting authorized selectmen to petition the state Legislature to allow Brookline to secede from Norfolk County, he could use the vote to keep the need for a change to the county tax system “hot” in the minds of the county government.
While Town Meeting did authorize selectmen to petition the state about seceding from Norfolk county, the members, by a majority vote, were against a calling for the Norfolk County government to be abolished.
Town Meeting also voted Tuesday to change Brookline’s tobacco bylaws by voting 169 to 1 in favor of increasing the minimum age in which a person can buy tobacco products in the town from 18 to 19 years old. The change will likely take effect later this year once the measure has been approved by the state Attorney General’s office.
Students from Brookline High School, lead by senior Eric Dumas, had proposed the change so it would be more difficult for high school students to gain access to cigarettes.
Dumas told Town Meeting Tuesday that one of the first things people see when they drive up to the high school is students standing out front smoking. Since most students don’t turn 19 years old until after they’ve graduated, he said the local change would make it more difficult for any high school students to get tobacco products.
“This may not seem like a big difference but it is,” Dumas said.
Brookline joins Belmont and Needham as the first communities in the state to increase the minimum age to purchase tobacco. Needham raised the minimum age to 19 in 2003 and has since raised the minimum age to 21. Belmont’s Board of Health increased the minimum age to 19 in April after hearing about the proposal in Brookline.