image of barnstable county courthouse

This month is National County Government Month

Counties are one of America’s oldest forms of government, dating back to 1634 when the first county governments (shires) were established in Virginia. The organization and structure of today’s 3,069 county governments are chartered under state constitutions or laws and are tailored to fit the needs and characteristics of states and local areas. 

No two counties are exactly the same. Counties are diverse in structure and how we deliver services to our communities. In general, states decide the roles and responsibilities of county governments. Counties are governed by locally elected officials and, in some instances, operate under home rule authority, as Barnstable County does, which allows for more local flexibility and control with structural, functional and fiscal powers.

Though organizational structures vary across the nation, all county, parish and borough governments are on the front lines of delivering vital services to residents.  One of Barnstable County’s jobs has been to respond to the pandemic. If you hadn’t paid much attention to County government and services before, chances are you are aware that the County is currently offering services, such as free COVID-19 testing, COVID-19 vaccine, sourcing PPE for our communities, connecting residents with food resources, publishing epidemiological data, participating on the Cape Cod COVID-19 Response Task Force, and much more.  But how well do you know the other services that Barnstable County provides? And what exactly makes our county unique when compared to other counties?

Mary Chafee, Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates Deputy Speaker, published an article in the Cape Cod Times on November 14, 2019 that answers these questions. We share it here with permission from the Cape Cod Times.

What has Barnstable County done for you lately?

By Mary Chaffee

Do you eat at Cape restaurants or swim at town beaches?  Does your town dredge its inlets?  Do you enjoy Cape shellfish?  Have you experienced a weather emergency here?  Does your town have a police or fire department, buy office supplies or use AmeriCorps for natural resources projects?  Do you appreciate that uncontrolled Cape development before 1990 is now managed to protect the environment and culture?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you or your town has benefitted from Barnstable County government services.  Cape Cod has unique economic and environmental issues that make county government valuable.  Most Cape towns are small and rural, and couldn’t afford to offer the services the county provides.

By the 1900’s, most of Massachusetts’ 14 counties were “outposts of petty graft and corruption” or lazy and ineffective bureaucracy,” according to Jennifer Babson.  Middlesex County led the bad behavior parade by defaulting on a bond.  Its bond rating plummeted to junk status.  Tired of rescuing mismanaged counties, the Massachusetts Legislature weakened them by eroding their revenue, and ultimately passed a bill leading to most counties’ abolishment.

Read the rest of this article at

Representing the town of Brewster, Mary Chafee has served in the Assembly since 2017 and has been Deputy Speaker since January 2021. She is the chair of Brewster’s Select Board and has served seven years on the town’s Board of Health. As a Navy nurse, she served 26 years and was promoted to the rank of Captain.

Brewster Delegate Mary Chaffee. Deputy Speaker