Forced regionalization is a minefield for western Connecticut towns

Connecticut’s planning regions are about to be reorganized. While this may not seem like earthshaking news, alarm bells are sounding in western Connecticut, where many municipal CEOs are deeply concerned.

Because Connecticut has no county government, planning regions have provided a way for municipalities to work together on matters like transportation and economic development. They’ve also received certain types of state and federal funding that are available only to regional entities. Before two recent voluntary consolidations, Connecticut had 15 planning regions with relatively light administrative structures. A law requiring the governor’s budget office (OPM) to present a plan to consolidate the regions by Jan. 1, 2014 has been on the books for several years. While individual “border” towns can appeal OPM’s final plan, it is essentially a mandate under the law.

Several changes were made to that law last spring. One of them requires the new regions defined by OPM to adopt a Council of Governments (COG) administrative structure and to be capable of going beyond providing “necessary regional services” to “sophisticated planning activities and regional services.” New language enumerates 25 services, which include education, public safety, health, housing, and land use. One concern expressed by municipal CEOs around the state is that this may augur a shift of state and/or local functions to the regions, creating an additional layer of administration and costs, and leading to loss of local control.

OPM has recently released its preliminary plan, which reduces the number of regions to eight, and has presented it to town officials. OPM staff has been unable to answer questions about why the number of regions is being cut in half, with corresponding increases in their size.

The legislature’s chief regionalization proponent, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, has, however, spoken openly about what he hopes this initiative will achieve. One main objective is reducing towns’ reliance on property taxes. Likening Connecticut’s tax system to a stool with three legs representing sales, income, and property taxes, he has said the property tax leg is “extra long” and the legs must be rebalanced.

Many town CEOs worry that residents’ local tax money, instead of going directly to municipal services and schools, would go to the state through sales and income taxes, giving the state the authority to decide how to distribute it. Because the law allows regions to apply for incentive funding based on sharing of services, towns might be forced to pool resources within their regions to obtain revenue, and many could face dramatically reduced revenue streams and stressed services. One southwestern Connecticut town CEO said, “I’m skeptical about the true intent of this redistribution of resources. Not only might well-managed towns receive less, but more of our resources would also go to municipalities with no record of using the funding they already receive wisely.”

The law exempts from consolidation imposed by OPM any two regions that voluntarily consolidate to form a new region with 14 or more towns. To avoid potential destabilization of municipal revenue streams and resources, western Connecticut’s town CEOs have collaborated to form a region of municipalities that share similar characteristics and levels of need. The result: a joint application to OPM for a voluntary merger of the existing southwestern (SWRPA) and Housatonic Valley (HVCEO) regions. As one HVCEO town CEO said, “It’s the least painful way of doing something we didn’t want to do to begin with.”

Although SWRPA and HVCEO followed the law’s requirements closely and met the application deadline, municipal CEOs are concerned about signs of the administration’s continuing interest in integrating Greater Bridgeport into the new region. If everyone follows the law, this won’t happen. I have joined many SWRPA municipal CEOs in requesting OPM’s speedy written confirmation of the proposed SWRPA/HVCEO merger, which would put the matter to rest.

How far Connecticut’s regionalization goes in transforming local government remains to be seen. Better transportation planning and voluntary sharing of municipal resources to create efficiencies would make sense. But regional mandates, state redistribution of local revenues, and stretching local resources too far pose serious threats to well-managed SWRPA and HVCEO municipalities. All of us who represent this region must work together to navigate the regionalization minefield and safeguard the quality of services and financial health of our communities.

SWRPA towns are Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport, and Wilton.

HVCEO towns are Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Redding, Ridgefield, and Sherman.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) represents Wilton, Norwalk, and Westport. She is ranking member of the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee and a member of the appropriations, education, and higher education committees.