Editorial: Regions and counties

Regional, schmeegional.

Big news! Or not. Or, maybe. Wilton’s regional planning agency, the eight-town Southwestern Regional Planning Agency, is merging with a neighboring group, the 10-town Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials. The six-town Greater Bridgeport Regional Council may jump in as well.

It’s voluntary — sort of. It’s the groups’ response to a state initiative to consolidate Connecticut’s 14 regional planning agencies down to eight “councils of government.” These would be part of larger Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which would be reduced from 10 to five.

For the most part, a reorganization of the state’s regional planning alphabet soup is something few people care about.

If all goes well, it won’t make much difference to people. Regional planning agencies and their small staffs do perform valuable functions, but it’s all a step removed from people’s daily lives. When there’s a pothole to be filled, a tree across the road, or somebody suspects a builder is filling the wetland next door, nobody calls their regional planning agency. They call the town.

But reorganization does highlight one of Connecticut’s strengths: It is a state without county government. Longtime locals grouse about their taxes, and have every right to do so. But people moving in from New York or New Jersey often regard the taxes they pay here as refreshingly low.

A major reason is that, unlike neighboring states, Connecticut has only a few vestiges of county government. Wilton is part of Fairfield County, but the county hardly exists — it’s little more than a name used to organize the state’s judicial system.

In New York, people vote for — and pay — a county executive. There’s a county board of legislators, county police, county taxes, and departments the towns don’t have, like a health department.

In very rural areas, county or regional governments have more to do —they pick up functions the states are too big to do efficiently, and little country towns too small for.

But in populated, urban and suburban areas like Connecticut, there are few tasks that couldn’t be handled as well by the state or local officials. Regional perspectives can be useful in some areas, like transportation, and Connecticut’s low-power planning agencies — affiliations of mayors and first selectmen, served by minimal staffs — do pretty well providing them.

The agenda behind the state reorganization isn’t clear, and local regions don’t have much choice. But Connecticut residents should be wary of moves toward regional or county government.

Counties are just another level of government to support, with less control and less accountability.