Amid fiscal perils, will the state embrace regionalism?

Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

The Hartford skyline

First of three articles.

“It’s time for regional cooperation,” said Hartford Mayor Mike Peters to an audience in Simsbury in 1994. “You give me a dump truck, and I’ll give you a gang.”

The late and beloved Mayor Mike was kidding, as he was wont to do, but was hoping to start some regional sharing. Regionalism has been a hard sell in the land of devout localism, and nothing much happened. But at the beginning of this decade, it actually appeared that Connecticut was moving — well, inching — toward a more regional approach to local government, sometimes called metropolitan regionalism.

The General Assembly created a commission to build a foundation for regional cooperation, and the commission produced dozens of ideas for regional solutions. The state’s councils of governments initiated a host of regional services. Organizations such as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities called for more regional interaction.

But in 2017, with the state budget deep in the tank, the momentum, such as it was, ground to a halt. Few regional proposals saw the light of day.

Did the state back off when it should have doubled down on the push for regionalism? “Ironically, when we needed it most, we didn’t have it, “ said State Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester.

Cassano has backed regional proposals for years, as has State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. Rojas has watched the incremental crawl of regionalism with some frustration, and thinks it will take a “very real crisis” to get the legislature to make a major commitment to regionalism.

The numbers suggest that such a crisis is upon us.

Though the state has had a trickle of good economic news recently — a strong third quarter in 2017 and a modest uptick in jobs for the year after no growth in 2016    the economic picture at the Capitol is still mega-bleak.

The current state budget is nearly $200 million in deficit. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration says the fiscal year beginning July 1 has a built-in hole of $165 million, and the potential gap quickly gets much larger after that. The legislature’s nonpartisan analysts project deficits of $1.8 billion in 2019-20 and $2.5 billion in 2020-21. The state also has lost population in recent years.

Finally, some of the state’s cities and towns are in deep fiscal despond; a couple, including Hartford, flirted with bankruptcy last year. 

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org file photo

Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth co-chairs Jim Smith, left, and Robert Patricelli. The commission is scheduled to report Thursday.

Advocates have urged the state’s Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth to include regional solutions in the recommendations it must make to the legislature on Thursday. “We’ve gotten a lot of testimony on it (regionalism), and are looking at it very closely,” Cochair Bob Patricelli said in a recent interview. “It is under active consideration.”

Could a move toward metropolitan regionalism help save money and spur economic development, as advocates claim? What would a major step look like?

Here are four possibilities:

The Nuclear Option

Nearly everyone agrees that if Connecticut were founded today, it would not have 169 towns, the legacy of our Congregationalist forebears, a “relic of the 17th century,” said Hartford planner and consultant Toni Gold. The most radical measure the legislature could take — and the least likely — would be to, in essence, found the state again: Eliminate the 169 cities and towns and replace them with a small number — five to eight — of metro governments.

In a recent interview, former State Sen. Gary LeBeau of East Hartford said a consolidation of towns would save “hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars” by removing numerous levels of management, and send a positive message about the state’s ability to put its house in order.

A variation of the idea, which LeBeau does not oppose, would be to keep the towns for minor local services or ceremonies but transfer major services to a metro entity.

The nuclear option runs afoul of the idea that small government governs best, that local governments are accessible and responsive. LeBeau said too many small governments create unacceptable redundancy, and that regional governments can be efficient and effective. 

The nuclear option will meet huge resistance. “It’s not a productive idea. No one will ever agree to it,” said State Rep. Themis Klarides, House minority leader. She, however, favors a statewide discussion of regional service sharing, saying her district (in the lower Naugatuck Valley) has many great examples of shared service.

If there is any chance of the nuclear option actually happening — no current legislators or gubernatorial candidates have proposed it —  it would almost assuredly take hard data proving the state actually would save millions or billions. “Do a study,” said LeBeau, something that others, including Toni Gold, also have proposed.

Counties

Connecticut had counties from colonial times until 1960, when they were abolished. It was considered a good government step at the time; counties were viewed as little more than vehicles for political patronage. Connecticut was a small state, so the state could in effect be the county, the thinking went.

This made sense for some former county services. It was sensible to consolidate county jails and state prisons into a new Department of Correction, created in 1960. It made sense to have a unified court system. But some services are best delivered regionally, such as regional economic development, major talent/workforce efforts and some transit projects, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.

The usual argument against counties is that they add another layer of government. Indeed, government at all levels would have to be carefully restructured to avoid redundancy. There would be other issues, such as whether counties could pass ordinances, or whether the old county lines still make sense. 

The architect and planner Patrick Pinnell of Haddam once suggested organizing the state around its five river drainage areas, for better environmental and land-use planning.

And though there are county school districts in some states, loss of local control of schools might be a bridge too far in Connecticut, where regionalization efforts either have been voluntary or have involved creating schools of choice, as with the Sheff v. O’Neill magnet schools in the Hartford region, which were established after the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the region’s schools.

But, arguments can be made in favor of counties. They are technically not a new layer of government, they are administrative subdivisions of state governments. Connecticut not only has fragmented local government, it has fragmented state government. Service areas of state agencies are almost all different.

Research by John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, identified four transportation management areas, 15 regional transit districts, five homeland security regions, 13 judicial districts, 22 judicial branch areas, 12 juvenile courts, 54 Probate Court districts, 11 state police districts, 585 fire departments, 282 fire districts, five workforce development boards, nine labor market areas, eight service delivery areas for job training, eight workers’ compensation districts, 104 emergency call centers, five regional mental health boards, three Department of Development Services regions, 12 subregions for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, six Department of Children and Families (DCF) regions, six family support network regions, 25 DCF collaborative areas, six regional education service areas, 43 elementary-only school districts, 156 secondary school districts, 17 regional school districts and 73 health departments, among others. 

Perhaps counties could consolidate some of these agencies into common service areas, presumably gaining some efficiency and economy.

If county services were less expensive than town-by-town local services — if one county public works department were less costly than a department in each town, for example — it would allow taxes to be lowered and somewhat equalized, moderating the wild discrepancies in property tax rates among towns, said Sue Merrow, co-chair of 1000 Friends of Connecticut’s property tax working group. She said regional services could take some of the pressure off the state’s struggling large cities. 

Finally, it turns out the federal government makes about $20 billion a year available in grants for which counties are eligible. Access to that money might help Connecticut be less of a giver state, sending more money to Washington than it gets back.

Counties endure across the country; only Connecticut and Rhode Island have done away with them, and Massachusetts has done away with some counties. Duties range from courts and sheriffs in New England, to an array of services — waste management, some public safety functions, elections, vital statistics, public works, etc. —  in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, to major projects such as airports, convention centers and hospitals in large southern and western states. 

Empower the regional councils of government

In 2010 the state had an unwieldy 15 regional planning areas, some of which were councils of government, or COGs. A law enacted in 2010 reduced the number to nine and made them all COGs.

COGs are voluntary, nonpartisan regional organizations run by the chief elected officials of each town and dedicated to a variety of regional activities. Most of the state’s COGs have done yeoman work creating service sharing programs that save towns money, everything from purchasing and online permitting to animal control and property assessment.

But they don’t have the means to directly raise revenue, and so get by on member dues and a variety of federal and state grants, which took a major hit last year. Several current and former town officials have urged that the COGs be given taxing power and the ability to borrow money, as towns and transit districts can. Some might not choose to do it, but the COGs would at least have the ability to deliver a major project, if their members so desired.

Also, COGs can be designated “county equivalents,” making them eligible for federal grants to counties.  

COGs are here, people are familiar with them, and they already are engaged in regional activity. Strengthening them might be the path of least political resistance toward regional efficiencies. They would in effect be counties run by local elected officials. But it means towns must cede some power to the COGs, and that could be problematic.

Virtual Regionalism

In this variation, suggested by former Simsbury First Selectman Mary M. Glassman and some others, there would be no changes in government structure. Instead, towns would be required to regionalize services or risk loss of state funds.

For example, if a town didn’t merge its back office functions with those of its school district, it would see its state funding reduced. If it didn’t join a regional online permitting system, or join a regional purchasing compact, or work with adjoining towns on road projects, fewer dollars would roll in from Hartford.

“It’s about economy of scale, said Glassman. “It’s about how we buy things.”

The problem here, as Glassman acknowledges, is that the state would have to set the benchmarks, and at present there is no state agency dedicated to regionalism, no incentives to start a program, no one collecting data, no one even to talk to about it.

In short, Glassman suggests, the state will have to drive the program, be the champion or facilitator of this approach, and the state at present is not prepared to do so. 

However structured, there is a growing sense among advocates such as 1000 Friends of Connecticut and others, that something needs to be done. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Glassman said. The state is facing deficits as far as the eye can see, which could well lead to serious reductions in state aid to cities and towns and thus increases in local property taxes.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Sen. Joe Markley says he respects Connecticut’s traditional institutions.

Former House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, who formed the MORE (Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies) Commission in 2010 to lay the groundwork for more regional activity, thinks the status quo cannot hold.

“We need to blow up the way we think about providing services at the local level, because the current system is too costly and therefore unsustainable. If something can be done at the regional level, that should be the first option, not the last,” he said, endorsing Glassman’s thought that regional services are the ones the state should be paying for. 

Major changes in the Land of Steady Habits won’t come easily. Republican State Sen. Joe Markley of Southington said he is wary of a sweeping revision of governmental structure.

“I respect the institutions that have evolved over many years. Our towns have put down roots.” He said the many failed urban renewal projects in the post-World War II era gave him a distrust of sweeping plans from a centralized authority. And he said some towns — his, for one — really aren’t in a metropolitan region (though it would be possible to create metro regions around major cities without including all the towns).

If metropolitan regionalism would benefit Connecticut, it’s not just because of shared services. With Congress in perpetual gridlock and many states tapped out, regions across the country are coming together to drive big economic development and transportation projects. Connecticut’s regions aren’t there yet.

Next: Acting like a region.

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