Regional Councils of Government in Connecticut.
Regional Councils of Government in Connecticut.

Connecticut’s heavy reliance on local property taxes is a millstone around the state’s neck, critics have long asserted. They say high property taxes are a drag on business, promote sprawl and bad land use and penalize land-poor municipalities.

A number of people believe this burden can be significantly reduced by sharing municipal services on a regional basis. Three measures are afoot that could encourage more regional services.

One is a bill before the General Assembly that would revive a dormant grant program to provide funds for regional services provided either by the state’s nine councils of governments (COGs) or six regional education service centers (RESCs). It’s one of two proposed bills aimed at promoting shared services.

Also, the state has petitioned the U.S. Census Bureau to treat the state’s nine councils of governments, which are voluntary associations of towns, as “county equivalents.”

Finally, a study commissioned by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities seeks to quantify what often has been thought but never actually measured — how much money, if any, towns and the state can save by sharing services.

The Shark Returns

The grant program can largely be credited to former House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, who served in the General Assembly from 2001-2017 and championed regional service delivery.

In 2007, Sharkey initiated a legislative commission to generate ideas for regional cooperation. A few years later, he helped create a state grant program to provide incentives for towns to act regionally.

The commission, called the MORE Commission, produced dozens of ideas, many of which were adopted. Alas, the commission didn’t long survive Sharkey’s departure from the legislature. The grants, called Regional Performance Incentive Program or RPIP, haven’t been awarded since fiscal year 2016, the funds since then having been “swept” to mitigate budget deficits.

Sharkey, a lawyer, hasn’t given up. In 2018 he co-chaired, with former United Way executive Richard “Rick” Porth, the Lamont transition team report on shared services, which called for a “comprehensive realignment” of service delivery at the local, regional and state levels.

One of many recommendations in the report was to refocus a little-known agency called the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR).

The 25-member agency was created in 1985 to “study system issues between the state and local governments and to recommend solutions as appropriate.” In recent years, it has mostly pursued research and studies; in 2020, it provided summaries of the governor’s executive orders to towns and produced a report on shared services. Sharkey was named chairman of the agency last fall, a voluntary position, and decided to actually propose regional-related legislation.

Communities within a region cannot exist in isolation. We are all interdependent. To the extent we have created barriers, we promote institutional racism.”— Former House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden

The first bill from the commission, now before the legislature as part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s legislative package, would revive and refocus the RPIP grant program to put more emphasis on regional action.

Under the original program, two towns could declare themselves a region and go halfsies on a woodchipper, for example. The new bill focuses more on services; it would provide funds to let towns or school districts take services they now offer individually and offer them regionally through the COGs or RESCs. The service would be up to the towns or school boards — the bill lists more than two dozen activities, from public safety and economic development to regional sewerage, public safety and tourism promotion. Participation would be voluntary.

The applicants would have to show how the proposal would save money for the towns and the state. The grant would cover 75% of the cost for three years. The funds would come, as before, from a percentage of the hotel and car rental taxes.

Sharkey thinks the three-year grant format will discourage the sweeping of its funds and hopes the popularity of the program achieves the same result. He said in a recent interview that towns could see significant savings in education, the big kahuna in most local budgets, with regional transportation, payroll, insurance, curriculum development — “dozens of services.”

As the Mirror has reported, a parallel bill now before the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee would include guaranteed aid for communities that voluntarily pool their resources.

This bill would impose a 2.5% cap on annual property tax hikes, but would require the state to pay part of the cost to communities that share services regionally. The state would pay 10% for education, 5% for public safety programs and 2.5% for any other new service-sharing arrangements, as the bill now stands.

Sharkey likes working with the COGs and RESCs because he believes they are “the future of local government.”

He said Connecticut’s system of 169 local governments “is inefficient because we duplicate services … which translates to higher property taxes.” He said regional services can lower property taxes and gradually break down the walls between towns.

“Communities within a region cannot exist in isolation. We are all interdependent. To the extent we have created barriers, we promote institutional racism,” he said.

County bounty

The “county equivalent” designation is less ominous than it might sound. It does not create new county governments, raise taxes or eliminate jobs. It should mean better data and more grant opportunities.

Connecticut did away with its eight county governments in 1960, replacing them with 15 regional planning organizations. That number was reduced to nine, and each of these designated as a council of government, in 2015. But apparently no one brought any of this to the attention of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since nearly all states have counties, that is how the Census reports much of its data. So for the last six decades, the state has been receiving census data based on its old counties, whose boundaries don’t correspond to those of the current planning areas. “We get massive federal data sets, all completely irrelevant,” said Sam Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments and head of the state association of councils of government.

This forces staffers to undo and reconstruct the data to match the current planning areas, a time-consuming drudge. “We do it all the time, and it is really batty,” said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. But if all goes well, the 2023 American Community Survey and future Census data will be based on the existing nine regions, state officials say.

Another advantage of county equivalency — a status held by parishes in Louisiana, boroughs in Alaska and some independent cities — is access to federal grants. Some of the hundreds of federal grant programs are open to counties or county-equivalents, said Sharkey and others, but not to COGs.

Does that mean the state has been missing out on federal monies all these years? No and yes. The state wouldn’t miss most so-called formula grants, say job training funds based on population, because most of these would revert to the state.

But not all. For example, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, announced in January, designated billions of dollars to county governments. It took a “Herculean” lobbying effort by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, working with its Washington lobbyists at the National League of Cities and the state’s Congressional delegation, to get a carve-out in the bill so Connecticut would get what turned out to be $691 million, said CCM executive director Joe DeLong — money that eventually will reach the towns.

“It was our greatest lobbying effort that no one knows about,” he said. But he said it would be impossible to do this with every grant program, which argues for gaining county equivalency status.

Where the state may consistently be coming up short is in the opportunity to apply for competitive discretionary grants, in economic development and other areas — grants that counties across the country compete for.

Towns can apply for some of these grants, but as Gold said, an application from a county equivalent is both administratively simpler and likely stronger than requests from individual towns.

This is important because when it comes to bringing back federal funds, Connecticut is second to all. According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, Connecticut receives less money back from the federal government than it pays in, on a per-capita basis, than any other state in the country, a negative balance of payments of $1,614 per resident.

Gaining county status “will make it incumbent on COGs to find programs that fit Connecticut and go after them,” said Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments.

Whither the COGs

The idea of COGs providing regional services is hardly new; the state has been inching in this direction for decades. The Capitol Region Council of Governments, the state’s largest COG with 38 towns and 1 million residents, has developed regional programs in purchasing, police communications, IT services, online permitting, animal shelters and others.

The Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, another innovator in regional services, offers regional economic development, property revaluation, geographic information services and paramedic intercept services, among others, on a regional basis. Executive director John Filchak said he is developing a pilot program to let three or four small towns share a professional town manager.

Whether this trend will continue may depend in large part on the bottom line. Does sharing services save real money? Advocates think so, but there hasn’t been a definitive study of the question. The closest may have been a 2013 study by the New England Public Policy Center, an arm of the Boston Fed, determined that regional sharing of services saves money in some cases — on capitol- and technical-based services rather than labor-intensive ones.

The study identified three services that would lend themselves to cost-saving regionalization in Connecticut: emergency call handling and dispatch, public health districts and local pension administration.

The CCM last year initiated a new study on the subject, which is expected to be completed later this year. If it clearly saves them money, towns may be more inclined to share more services.

CCM’s DeLong, who has pushed for service sharing for several years, said the General Assembly could help the process with two measures. One would require “coalition bargaining,” in cases where service-sharing involved multiple unions. So, say 10 towns wanted to form a regional fire department. Instead of having to bargain with each union in each town, the firefighters would either form a new bargaining unit, or a coalition of the existing unions, so there would be just one bargaining session.

The other measure would be to preclude any provision of a town charter from preventing sharing of services. The wording of some charters inhibits regional sharing, DeLong said.

The COGs also may take on more duties because state government is shrinking. As the CT Mirror has reported, the state is expecting a huge wave of retirements in the next two years. It may make sense to align some state agency service areas with COG regions, to gain synergy and efficiency.

So it remains unclear how or if the COGs will grow. Wray believes the COGs can be — and sometimes are — the go-to entity for activities that require a regional response such as vaccination site planning, food distribution, housing assistance and so forth. “That way we don’t have to reinvent it every time something happens.”

He said people should remember that towns still call the tune. The COGs are a forum for towns to work together when it is in their interest to do so.

“COGs are a coalition of the willing,” he said. “COGs work for the towns, not the other way around.”

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.

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