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Can Regionalism Save Money?
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by Jeff Cohen

Brendan Sharkey liked smart growth before smart growth was cool – back when it was the domain of wonky transportation and development types like him. But now, smart growth is gaining support in the state, because it means creating efficiencies, which means saving money, and saving money is what all of the legislative cool people now want to do.

Because they have to.

"Twenty-five percent of our entire budget is gone, and left us at the end of 2008. I mean, it's gone. Twenty five percent, that's about 4 billion dollars, has dropped off the table, and it's not coming back."

Sharkey – a lawyer, businessman, and Hamden state representative in his fifth term – is the man Democratic leaders have put in charge of a committee to recommend new laws to streamline government functions and, in theory, help shrink the cost of government.

"The immediate charge of all the committees is to find those solutions that we can do this year. And put a number on it."

So, where does he start?

"Collective bargaining. It's a hot-button issue."

But it's one that he says both labor and management agree is out of date. Sharkey says municipalities and their unions waste a lot of money as unions for public works employees, police, firefighters, and teachers each negotiate their own, local contracts.

"What if we regionalized those services? I think there's some real savings there. Having a regional framework for establishing what is a fair contract creates certainty for all sides so that they can budget properly and save money doing that, as well."

Sharkey says educational contracts may prove the most ripe for regionalism. He says combining food services for school districts could save ten or twenty percent. Do the same with school transportation and the state could cut down on the roughly $260 million it spends each year to subsidize the cost of busing statewide.

"When you’re talking 10 or 20 percent savings on $260 million dollars, now you’re talking some real money. We could put this into motion this year. And that's on just one small portion of the overall picture."

That's the kind of stuff Sharkey and his committee will look to enact by the end of this legislative session. After that, the ideas get bigger – from using state funds to encourage towns and cities to work together, to possibly raising the state sales tax to help struggling town halls. But that's an idea that takes Sharkey four 'maybees' before he can get it out.

"You know, maybe we, maybe, maybe….maybe it's time to think about an additional, say, half a penny or additional one percent on the sales tax, for example. The state collects it now, but if towns agree to regionalize their services, we’ll give that half a penny back to those regions to help offset property tax."

Sharkey says he realizes that it isn't easy to sell regionalism to a state like this one, where identity is town-by-town. But Connecticut is also a place known for its frugality. And Sharkey's hoping that now, given the economic circumstances, the state's residents and its politicians will value their dollars as much as they do their autonomy. Maybe.

For WNPR, I'm Jeff Cohen.