As policy makers, it is our obligation to consider all possible ideas for improving the quality of life of those we represent. Too often there is a visceral, negative reaction when the word “regionalization” comes up. And I understand the angst.
Connecticut after all is the “Land of Steady Habits,” home to 169 towns, and changing our approach to the delivery of services at the local level can be difficult. For as long as I have been a legislator, I have sincerely believed that our failure to think long-term about ways we can work together, outside of the artificial political boundaries that define our towns, has led to worse policy outcomes and higher costs for taxpayers, perpetuating the Two Connecticuts.
One of the lessons of the pandemic is just how interconnected this world has become. Our ability to effectively respond to the crisis was hampered by our byzantine approach to providing services to residents. A 2013 study of local New England governments by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that communities could save approximately 60 percent of the costs of 9-1-1 and public health services by approaching them regionally.
On the health front, with 73 separate health departments, our state has the second-most fragmented system in the country. By employing a regional approach, Connecticut communities could save $25.4 million, while also improving service delivery for quicker response times and higher survival rates during emergencies.
Another significant source of savings — and opportunity to improve public safety — would come from consolidating our public safety answering points (PSAPs). These are facilities that operate 24/7 to answer 9-1-1 calls and dispatch our local emergency responders: police, fire, or emergency medical services. Did you know Connecticut has more than 100 of these facilities? This is astronomical given Connecticut’s very small land mass. Just to our north, Vermont, which has a land mass slightly larger than Connecticut, has fewer than 10 PSAPs. Harris County, Texas, which is home to the City of Houston and has a larger population than the State of Connecticut, has one — one — emergency call center.
And here is the thing — we can gain regional efficiency, and we have done it. In 2009, Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed overhauling our probate court system. At the time there were 117 probate courts. After significant study, and some difficult political debates, we successfully consolidated the system into 54 courts. These courts are all easily accessible to the public and provide high-quality service in a more efficient manner.
As is well-known, Connecticut, like most New England states, does not operate with county-level government. States in other parts of the country rely on county governments to provide many of the services we provide in Connecticut either through the state or local governments. This doesn’t mean we have less government, just less efficient government. However, a 1960 law enabled Connecticut to develop a form of regional governance through regional councils of government (COGs). Today there are nine COGs that provide a range of services including emergency communication, purchasing, regional economic development, and much more, to the towns and cities that voluntarily participate in the COG.
Recently, Gov. Ned Lamont requested that the U.S. Census Bureau designate our COGs as “county equivalents,” enabling them to receive better data and federal funding that normally goes to county governments in other states. This was an important step in the right direction. Empowered regional COGs could expand the services they offer based on regional needs, while saving taxpayers their hard-earned dollars.
As we work to achieve a more equitable state, we must also recognize how our approach to providing services creates and reinforces vast disparities between different communities. Consolidating our social services systems in urban centers, and not working regionally on economic development strategies, divides communities. Changing our approach to public policy to think “regionally first” will help address systemic and structural inequities that have limited a child’s opportunity to succeed based on their zip code, or even census block, even in our very wealthy state.
We believe in the great New England tradition of grassroots democracy and local control. Regionalizing certain services is not giving up local control, it’s about recognizing that by working together, across artificial political boundaries, we can improve outcomes for Connecticut residents.
State Rep. Jason Rojas of East Hartford (D-9th Dist.) is the Majority Leader of Connecticut’s House of Representatives and a panelist in a four-part series, “The Two Connecticuts: Conversations about Race and Place,” He will join the fourth session on regionalism on December 8 together with, among others, Mirror reporter Tom Condon.