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New Momentum for Regional Approach
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The boundaries between Connecticut's 169 towns separate different demographic histories, local characters, and of course, town budgets. But with finances crunched at the state and local levels, leaders are increasingly talking about making some of those boundaries more permeable.

As state and local leaders brace for grueling budget decisions in the coming months, there is a new forcefulness behind talk of changing the way local governments run in the state.

"These ideas has been floated before but never has it been more important from an efficiency point of view, but I think now, from a municipal survivability point of view," says Senate President Don Williams. He is floating the idea of tying state aid for towns to a requirement for greater regional services. "One of the only ways we're going to be to preserve the level of state funding and support for municipal services around the state is if we can get more efficiencies at the state level," he says.

That is a welcome message in the offices of the Capitol Region Council of governments. Lyle Wray is the director of the organization that has coordinated regional planning in the Greater Hartford area for more than thirty years.

“I don't think we had a sitution of a financial crisis where we've had to do this. Confront reality and say we can’t go on the way we’ve been going on. I think that's a good start, and then we sort of open up the door for opportunities.”

The state is projecting around a $6 billion shortfall over the next two years and may cut aid to local towns. This comes at a time, Wray says, when municipalities have already cut their budgets in response to higher expenses and local resistance to property tax hikes.

"They've whacked deferred maintenance. They've whacked general government, and they've funded education as best they can. And I think we're kind of at the end of those. The relatively easy things to do have been done. Now we're getting into the tough stuff."

But what regionalization means in Connecticut - a state without operational counties and a proud tradition of local control - is still up for debate. Wray is not advocating redrawing the map. He says talk of merging municipalities is a distraction, because it just won't happen here. 

"It's fighting words, and people are going to get their torches out of their garage and come down to town hall and tell you what they think." 

Instead, he says it's time for towns to streamline and eliminate unnecessary duplications - starting with things residents may not even notice.

"We're going to leave your town alone. You're going to have your town hall, and all the regular functions of town government. But behind curtain, things people don't care about are going to be done in common and much, much more efficiently." 

That could mean merging human resources staff, or billing departments. Or changing who picks up trash or plows snow.

The catch is that if the goal is reducing costs, Wray says no one knows exactly where to start.  

"Where is the biggest potential savings? So what is that hit list? Is it dispatch, fire or is it overhead in school systems? Is it something else? Where do we save the money?"

He says the state should take the lead to determine what should be priorities, and offer incentives to get them done.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities says towns want that too.

"But they want it done in a way that is voluntary, that allows them to make the decisions for what is best for their hometowns."

Director Jim Finley says municipalities are ready to pursue more cross-border agreements, though he says that should not be a substitute for continued state assistance. 

Then, he says, there is the matter of collective bargaining contracts to get around.

"The union protections that are in the laws are extensive, and it makes it very legally very difficult to decide to work together with another town."

Cathy Osten says that doesn't have to be the case. She's the First Selectman in Sprague, a town of about 3-thousand people in eastern Connecticut. She's also president of Service Employees International Union Local 2001 which represents both state and municipal workers in Connecticut.

"We do collective bargaining agreements with many entities within either a municipality, or across boundary lines between municipalities. You can have an agreement that goes across boundary lines. There's nothing that bars that from happening."

It just requires a conversation up front during contract negotiations, she says. Osten says her union is ready to have those conversations - though she's quick to point out that regional cooperation is really nothing new.

In her town, they already share a building inspector, state trooper, and tax assessor with other municipalities. But they don't call it regionalization. She says they call it common sense. 

Block photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons - cmerlo441.