Lyle Wray served as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments from 2004 to 2021. "It (regionalism) is looking at solutions for problems that are worth better at a larger scale than a small town. A lot of things are more efficient at the larger scale," Wray said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Lyle Wray served as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments from 2004 to 2021. CRCOG, as it is known, is the state’s largest regional planning/council of governments, serving 38 cities and towns with a population more than one million. In the fall, Wray was presented with the Oz Griebel Regional Distinction Award by the MetroHartford Alliance. Wray talked regionalism with Tom Condon, the Mirror’s urban and regional aairs reporter.

1. As head of CRCOG, you promoted the idea of towns sharing services, sometimes a political challenge. What are some of CRCOG’s notable accomplishments in this area?

We didn’t invent the wheel — we built on prior regional efforts in public safety and cooperative purchasing. That provided a level of trust, which allowed us to expand cooperative purchasing and homeland security cooperation. We built more shared services, often with an important IT element, such as online building permitting for towns and cloud-based servers for towns to replace their small computer systems. With new software, we were able to provide lower-cost data storage and cybersecurity efforts. We supported multi-town programs in finance, public health, waste services and animal control, among others.

2. So there is probably more regional activity than most people realize. And yet, it doesn’t feel as if we are acting as a region. Indeed, we may be backsliding. In the past year, suburban towns have poached teachers and police officers from Hartford, which seems like the antithesis of regionalism. Your thoughts — are we moving forward, backward, or sideways?

I think we’re generally moving forward. “Poaching” happens anywhere in the country where employees feel they might get a better deal in a suburban environment. It is very unlikely that we will offset it by creating “big bang” regional school districts or public safety departments; this has rarely been done across the country.

There are examples of successful regionalization. There’s much more regional purchasing; We and CCM (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities) have training and other programs with a regional focus. At a granular level, towns are sharing personnel because they are short of workers, a situation that will likely get a lot worse soon.

3. Along with municipal retirements, nearly a quarter of the state’s workforce will be eligible for retirement on July 1 of this year. Will that force us to rethink how we deliver services?

We’ll see. Change is always difficult, and we have been set in our ways for a long time. Shortage of skilled staff in towns may spur more efforts in this direction over time.

4. To back up a bit, why pursue regionalism? Connecticut’s fragmented town government, which can be traced back to the autonomous Congregational churches of the 17th and 18th centuries, may be inefficient and redundant, but it is what people are used to and comfortable with, or so it seems.

If we are out to provide effective, efficient and responsive government, and do so at a reasonable price, then doing things at a regional scale is one important tool. The rationales are critical mass, economy of scale and the correspondence of the geography of a problem with that of the agencies meeting the challenge.

5. I get economy of scale. It might be 120 towns in a bulk purchasing combine, to reduce everyone’s cost. Critical mass might be 12 towns supporting a water and sewer authority. How about a geography example?

Sure. Let’s say you want to clean up the Connecticut River. If you just clean up Hartford’s discharge, but Springfield was still dumping raw sewage, it does not make a lot of sense.

6. Your example would require state and federal authorities, EPA New England, because the geography of the problem goes beyond one state?

Yes.

7. I guess the challenge is to determine what services can best be delivered regionally. How did CRCOG proceed? 

We picked our battles on shared services and regionalization. We tried to find the most effective services that would engender the least political resistance. It’s tricky, at times.

8. I agree. Look at efforts to regionalize 911 call centers. The last time I looked, the state had more than 100 emergency call centers, formally called public safety answering points, or PSAPS. While there are a some that are consolidated and seem to work fine, efforts in recent years to consolidate more of them have gone nowhere. Clearly the technology is available; Harris County in Texas, (Houston) with more than 4 million people, has one PSAP. Why is this a hard sell?

Opposition to 911 consolidation has been strong at the local level. It is not a technical problem but a political one. Local staff do not want to give up their own PSAPs. Plus, consolidation involves some level of reorganization, which almost no one enjoys.

9. Don’t regional services save money?

Long answer short, there is money to be saved. But given a $40 billion state budget and tens of billions of local budgets, the savings are not likely to be on a huge scale. Still, by integrating a whole bunch of services, just things that are reachable, we could save perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As just one example, when I managed a county in the Midwest, we had 65 PSAP dispatchers for 450,000 people. Today, one city in Connecticut, Hartford, has 55 dispatchers for 120,000 residents. So yes, there is some money to be saved.

10. What things are reachable? You’ve observed that education and public safety are at present the third rails of regionalism, not going to happen. Where are the opportunities?

For one, back-office functions, things like human resources, finance, insurance, risk management, marketing, and others. People won’t run for the pitchforks over where their tax bills are mailed from. Another area is human services, which are delivered regionally in most of the country. For example, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., the county health and human services agency works with the United Way to deliver an array of human services, an efficient system. And human services, as well as K-12 education, is where the money is.

11. Your former agency, CRCOG, played a major role in food distribution and vaccination programs during the pandemic. Do you see the agency playing a similar role in the future?

CRCOG is a resource for the region, a major asset for responding to a variety of challenges.

12. Which brings us to the question of capacity. Former West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka once said regionalism was hard to achieve in Connecticut because the towns didn’t have excess personnel to assign to regional projects, and the COGs had small staffs. CRCOG, far and away the largest COG, has a staff of 25.  If increasing capacity is important, how do we achieve it?

Part of the solution is to build capacity with savings from economies of scale or other efficiencies in town services. Smaller communities could easily share finance and other functions and use the savings to develop more shared resources. This needs to be organized and supported, but that can be done. For example, Franklin County, Mass., does financial services for many towns on a subscription basis, something we might consider.

13. Do we have too many COGS? We once had 15 regional planning agencies, some of which were COGs. About a decade ago that was changed, and now there are nine planning agencies, all of which are COGs. Is nine too many?

When the COGs were reorganized, the original concept was five regions, like the workforce and homeland security regions. But, long story short, the way the implementation was rolled out allowed for a larger number. With all the issues we now face, I would not suggest we try to change the number of COGs. That ship has sailed. 

14. There’s been some effort in recent years, led by former East Granby First Selectman Dave Kilbon and others, to empower the COGs, notably to give them the power to borrow money, with member approval, for economic development. Good idea?

Any big moves on COG powers or funding in my view requires a plan for how the COGs will evolve. Should the COGs focus on economic development, human services, or public services? What sequence should we follow? Can we get state support over time for the effort? That conversation needs to happen. 

15. One thing impeding regional economic development, according to 1000 Friends of Connecticut and others, is the state’s heavy emphasis on local property taxes to fund education, because it encourages towns to compete against one another for tax base, rather than working together. Agree?

Strongly agree. Property taxes are a big issue. We are in the short list of states with very high contribution of total taxation coming from property taxes. It makes sense for many reasons to have a fairer and more balanced tax system among income, sales and property taxes. Again, we need a plan to get there. I personally like a combination of property tax relief on an income-adjusted basis combined with a much larger state share of K-12 funding, but those elements need to be part of an overall game plan. 

16. The COGs are also regional planning agencies. Do we have meaningful regional planning, or do developers just build where they can get land and financing?

We have an advisory planning process. We could ramp up planning incentives to have construction where it should go and ramp up redevelopment and development along transportation corridors. There is definitely room for improvement.

17. Some legislators and organizations such as the Connecticut Council of Municipalities and the MetroHartford Alliance are encouraging regionalism. Do you sense an opportunity? What can make it happen?

There seems to be more discussion of regional solutions. We need a more specific agenda that we can work on. The state can incent more regional efforts, and over time we can step up the progress. It will take time, leadership and persistence. We need to keep moving forward, but it’s a long-term process.

18. Will technology advance regional cooperation?

There is huge potential for IT based regional shared services — particularly back-office functions — in the coming years. The pressure from retirements and skilled worker shortage should encourage us to look to IT as part of the response. 

19. You are from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Like Hartford, it is a capital city that lost its NHL hockey team. Vastly different from Hartford, most of the people in the Winnipeg region (750,000 of 895,000) live in the city, which is 180 square miles, and it has a form of regional governance. How does that work?

In May 1970, the suburbs and core city were merged, including police, fire and schools. I would suggest that the 50-year track record is pretty impressive. Theirs is of course a vastly different political context and is not a model for the reality we face.

20. You once observed, correctly I think, that hardly anyone in Hartford ever fully retires. What’s next for Lyle Wray?

Deal with some health issues, continue to teach graduate school, look for the odd consulting gig and resume world travel when that makes sense. Always interested in working on public issues along the way. 

Avatar photo

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.