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May 5, 2010
Regionalism: Legislature Can Pass Four Ways To Save - Hartford Courant

April 30, 2010
House Passes Bills On Municipal Efficiencies - Regionalism
Legislation Allows Greater Cooperation Between Towns – Saves Money

March 3, 2010
Speaker Donovan, Rep. Sharkey Announce Recommendations For Regionalism And Streamlining Of Government
MORE Commission Identifies Cost Savings for Municipalities

January 16, 2010
Democrats pledge progress for 2010 - New Haven Register

January 16, 2010
Exploring Regionalism: Worthy Task Won't Be Easy - Hartford Courant
NEW COMMISSION • How can the state help towns work together?

January 14, 2010
House Democrats Launch Commission To Identify Opportunities For Regionalism, Municipal Cost Savings And Efficiencies
Speaker Donovan: 'We can be doing more with less;' Commission aims to enact legislation in 2010

January 5, 2010
Smart Growth

January 2, 2010
Region Agenda, Part 6: Connections Empower Metro Area - Hartford Courant

December 31, 2009
Region Agenda, Part 5: Who Will Do The Work? - Hartford Courant

December 30, 2009
Region Agenda, Part 4: Revenue-Sharing Enables Smarter Growth - Hartford Courant

December 29, 2009
Region Agenda, Part 3: How To Act Regionally - Hartford Courant

December 28, 2009
Region Agenda, Part 2: Share Services Where It Makes Sense - Hartford Courant

December 27, 2009
Region Agenda, Part 1: Little Fiefdoms Or Powerhouse Region? - Hartford Courant

December 18, 2009
State Losing Out On Federal Funding For Regional Development
Lawmakers urge governor to allow state to receive federal dollars

December 7, 2009
State Shouldn't Cut Economic Drivers - Hartford Business Journal

September 6, 2009
Property tax stability was the big winner in state budget battle - New Haven Register

May 21, 2009
Smart Growth Package Includes New Revenue Source For Towns
Regionalism and Sales Tax Sharing Equals Win-Win for Municipalities

April 8, 2009
Share Services: Towns Can Save By Teaming Up - Hartford Courant

February 18, 2009
A Regional Approach Would Ease The Burden On Taxpayers - Norwich Bulletin

February 5, 2009
Regionalism gets a welcome boost - Connecticut Post


May 5, 2010

REGIONALISM: LEGISLATURE CAN PASS FOUR WAYS TO SAVE

Hartford Courant

For as long as most of us can remember, "regionalism" was treated as a four-letter word in the Land of Steady Habits. Towns went it alone, more or less. But with the state and most municipalities in dire fiscal straits, there is a growing sense that regional cooperation can save money without damaging cherished community ties.

Four bills before the legislature — if they can survive the last-minute rush — should help engender regional efficiency, and could be the start of a watershed change in how Connecticut governs itself.

The first, and probably the most controversial, would raise the hotel occupancy tax by 3 percent, to bring in an estimated $9 million. One-third of the increase would go to the towns in which the hotels are located and two-thirds to regional planning organizations on a per-capita basis. The agencies can use the funds for regional initiatives such as tourism, economic development or cooperative education programs.

This is controversial because it is a tax increase (from 12 to 15 percent), with all that implies. But there is an upfront cost to most regional projects. This may not be the perfect way to provide the money, but it would work.

In the nettlesome area of unfunded mandates, another bill would require that landlords, under the supervision of state marshals, pick up the cost of removal and delivery of an evicted tenant's possessions and personal property. This cost is currently borne by towns.

A third bill would allow towns and their boards of education to collectively buy health insurance, and the final bill would encourage regional education efficiencies, notably in the area of transportation. If two or more towns can achieve a transportation contract that saves them money, the state will give the towns half the money it saves in lower reimbursements.

"This may be the model for future state grants," said state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, who heads the legislative commission that developed the legislation.

The four bills have passed the House and at press time were awaiting action by the Senate. While the budget has to be the top priority, bills that can lower costs in the long term should make the midnight deadline as well.


April 30, 2010

HOUSE PASSES BILLS ON MUNICIPAL EFFICIENCIES - REGIONALISM
Legislation Allows Greater Cooperation Between Towns – Saves Money

Today, the Connecticut House of Representatives passed a four-part legislative package that takes a comprehensive approach to regionalism, municipal cost savings, and shared efficiencies between cities and towns. 

Cost savings, revenue opportunities and unfunded state mandates on townswas the stimulus for several initiatives proposed by the Speaker's Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies Commission (MORE).

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden), who convened the MORE commission earlier this year, said, "There is a critical need to bring relief to municipalities and property taxpayers. Collectively, these bills can achieve real money-saving efficiencies and bring important revenue to the state's towns and cities. We can do more, and today we took an important step in that direction."

"The purpose of these bills is to provide municipalities with opportunities to collaborate on cost savings in the hope of lowering property taxes," said State Representative Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) and MORE Commission Chairman. "The public has the right to have their municipalities pursue cost saving measures in these tough economic times. Every town in Connecticut is looking for opportunities to save dollars. Allowing local governments to collaborate effectively and leverage shared services opens the door to even greater savings down the road–dollars needed for other critical services."

The first bill, HB 5336, establishes a grant to municipalities whose boards of education make an inter-town cooperative arrangement on their school transportation that saves them money. The grant is in addition to the reimbursements school districts receive under current law for student transportation.

In addition, regional educational service centers (RESCs) would have the authority to enter into contracts, buy, own, and sell property, and provide educational programs, services, and activities to member boards of education.

Another related bill, HB 5424, fosters regional cooperation for significant cost savings by allowing two or more municipalities or local or regional boards of education to collectively purchase health insurance for their employees. "The larger the group size generally results in a lower premium, a better benefits package for employees and more bargaining power for towns," said Sharkey.

Towns are struggling to provide services during this tough economic climate. Under HB 5483, towns will now receive additional revenue that raises the hotel occupancy tax from 12% to 15%. The bill requires the Department of Revenue Services (DRS) commissioner to reserve 20% of the new tax revenue where; one-third of that goes to the municipalities where the hotels are located, and; two-thirds go to eligible regional planning organizations (RPOs) on a per capita basis. The RPOs can use the money they receive to promote property tax relief through regional initiatives, including economic development and educational cooperative programs and agreements and promote tourism in their region.

"Doing more with less has been our philosophy throughout this process," Rep. Boukus said. "The MORE Commission members worked hard to streamline government and more efficiently deliver services through regional cooperation between cities and towns."

Another bill in the package, HB 5255, would have state marshals, rather than a town's chief executive officer, responsible for removal, delivery and storing an evicted tenant's possessions and personal property, unless reimbursed by the tenant or by public auction. This relinquishes the local taxpayers of the financial responsibility of storing evicted tenant's possessions.

"These initiatives were identified through the MORE Commission and the many individuals who provided input and cost saving ideas." said Sharkey. "I look forward to working with local government officials and business leaders to help encourage more cooperation."

BACKGROUND:
Since January, the MORE Commission has been studying ways to restructure government at all levels across the state, create operating efficiencies and save money for municipalities. Rep. Sharkey, House chairman of the General Assembly's Planning and Development Committee, chaired the MORE Commission and Rep. Boukus served as vice chairwoman. The commission is comprised of legislators, representatives of municipalities, regional organizations, education, business, unions and non-profit groups.

Additional information on the Speaker's Blue Ribbon Commission on Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies (MORE) is available online at: www.housedems.ct.gov/MORE/.


March 3, 2010

SPEAKER DONOVAN, REP. SHARKEY ANNOUNCE RECOMMENDATIONS
FOR REGIONALISM AND STREAMLINING OF GOVERNMENT

MORE Commission Identifies Cost Savings for Municipalities


House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden) and Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) unveiled the First Phase Recommendations of the Speaker's Blue Ribbon Commission on Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) at a press conference Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building.

"Never before has government been faced ywith such a critical need to act swiftly in bringing needed relief for municipalities and beleaguered taxpayers," Speaker Donovan said.

"The commission has spent innumerable hours in studying what needs to be done to achieve real money-saving efficiencies for the state's towns and cities," he said. "These recommendations for regional cooperation and the Second Phase areas identified for further study and action will address what is long-overdue for government in Connecticut."  

Rep. Sharkey said the MORE Commission members worked extremely hard to develop the consensus recommendations for immediate action.

"This is by no means the complete package of what our state must achieve to face our budget realities, but it represents a critical first step toward creating regional efficiencies in partnership with our cities, towns and boards of education," Rep. Sharkey said.

Since January, the commission has been studying ways to restructure government at all levels across the state, create operating efficiencies and save money for municipalities.

Rep. Sharkey, House chairman of the General Assembly's Planning and Development Committee, chairs the MORE Commission and Rep. Boukus is vice chairwoman. The commission is comprised of 45 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and representatives of municipalities, regional organizations, education, business, unions and non-profit groups.

The Commission has looked at a wide spectrum of issues and opportunities facing municipalities: multi-town collaboratives, board of education functions, regionally based organizations, collective bargaining, mandates, revenue sources, healthcare, and state grants. In each of these areas, commission subcommittees will investigate costs, benefits, resources, legal obstacles and opportunities, potential savings, consolidation, and results-based accountability (RBA) methods for tracking performance.

Phase I
Key Findings – The Four "R's"

 

Regionalism is Common Sense

  • Towns and Boards already get it – and they're already doing it
  • Best Practices for regionalizing services are already developing
  • One-Size-Fits-All solutions are not the norm
  • State government needs to promote innovation financially, and otherwise get out of the way

Revenue Streams are Essential

  • The greatest obstacle to initiating regionalized services is the up-front expense
  • State government must empower existing regional entities to carry out initiatives
  • The State must also provide revenue streams for regional entities
  • Permanent revenue streams for towns must be developed

Relief From Unfunded State Mandates Will Assist our Towns and Boards

  • Where policies and statutes cost towns money, the State needs to reevaluate,
    modify and/or rescind
  • Data is critical to evaluating costs and policies

Restructuring State and Local Government is Key to Solving Budget Crisis

  • State grants to towns and boards need to incent efficiencies
  • Economic Development must occur at the regional level
  • Existing regional entities are central to creating efficiencies, and
  • Consolidation of some regional entities must be evaluated
  • Barriers to health care and purchasing cooperatives must be removed

January 16, 2010

DEMOCRATS PLEDGE PROGRESS FOR 2010

By Mary E. O'Leary
Register Topics Editor

HARTFORD — They have been down this road many times before, but House Democratic leaders Thursday said this could be the year they make progress.

The issue is regional cooperation aimed at saving municipalities money and thereby helping them reduce or stabilize property taxes.

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, was joined at a press conference by more than 40 members of House Democratic caucus who have agreed to serve on subcommittees to look at multi-town collaboration around collective bargaining, health care, economic development and revenue sources.

The panel also is to have representatives of municipalities, regional organizations, education, business, unions and nonprofits as members.

"We can do more with less," Donovan said of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies.

"Instead of mandates, we want to do this in a cooperative manner," Donovan said of short-term goals for this year. "We want to start from a position of consensus."

There have been multiple blue ribbon studies of smart growth and regional cooperation going back almost a decade, but Donovan said towns suffering in this economic downturn might be more willing now to look to regional efficiencies.

"It is a real opportunity," Donovan said, that they plan to capitalize on.

But House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the Democrats "said the exact same thing last year and to not include one Republican on the commission is a joke. It is insulting. It is not bipartisan. It is not well thought out."

Recommendations on regionalism were laid out in detail in a 2003 blue ribbon report "and they (the Democrats) have not instituted one recommendation out of that," Cafero charged.

The state faces a $337 million deficit this year and a $12 billion hole by 2012 when federal stimulus funds will expire and, while state municipal aid to towns has been protected so far, that is expected to change.

"It is better for us to be thinking now of fiscal 2012 and how we can help lower the cost of government from both the state and local perspective, rather than waiting until we are falling off the cliff," said state Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who will lead the new committee. "The state budget is not getting better any time soon and that is going to have an impact on cities and towns."

Last year the state approved a plan for towns to work on regional economic development, but it dropped a proposal to give back a small percentage of the state sales tax generated in the region. Sharkey said they will probably discuss other forms of revenue, such as a regional hotel tax that would go to the towns in a cooperative region.

Donovan said they hope to realize savings in this short legislative session, while also setting ground work for long-term solutions. The first meeting of the committee is Tuesday.

© 2010 nhregister.com, a Journal Register Property


January 16, 2010

EXPLORING REGIONALISM: WORTHY TASK WON'T BE EASY
NEW COMMISSION • How can the state help towns work together?

We do not envy state Rep. Brendan Sharkey his new challenge.

Mr. Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden, has been named to head a blue-ribbon commission charged with finding money-saving efficiencies through regional cooperation. With towns struggling and the state facing a possible $6 billion deficit by 2013, sharing of municipal services can and should be a way to economize.

But legislative leaders didn't make it easy. For one thing, the commission has 45 Democratic legislators and no Republicans, a needless and counterproductive exercise in partisanship that GOP leaders have rightly criticized. Also, the commission will begin its work just two weeks before the 2010 legislative session begins in February. These are not simple issues, so it is unclear how much can be accomplished this year.

Perhaps the commission, which also will have town, union, nonprofit and business representatives, should bring in experts to study different models of metro or regional government and examine how they might work in Connecticut. Our ancient and balkanized system of 169 towns would seem to lend itself to more collaboration.

Or perhaps the state can help towns do what they have begun to do on their own. For example, Canton considered merging its police department with the larger departments in Avon and Simsbury, but was going to have trouble matching higher salary or benefit levels paid by those towns. What if the state came in with, say, a three-year grant to make up the difference?

Another tack might be to look at services performed both by the town and the state, from road maintenance to economic development, and ask if they can be combined.

There may be more interest in regional cooperation among towns than at any point in recent memory. The state Office of Policy and Management held a forum on municipal shared services Thursday at Central Connecticut State University, and it drew more than 200 town officials — and some gubernatorial candidates — from across the state.

Mr. Sharkey, a smart-growth advocate and co-chairman of the legislature's planning and development committee, is the right man to give this a try. He spearheaded regional legislation last year that he would like to build on. If ever there was a time to challenge the status quo, to put radical ideas on the table, this is it.


January 14, 2010

HOUSE DEMOCRATS LAUNCH COMMISSION TO IDENTIFY OPPORTUNITIES
FOR REGIONALISM, MUNICIPAL COST SAVINGS AND EFFICIENCIES

Speaker Donovan: 'We can be doing more with less;' Commission aims to enact legislation in 2010

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden) and House Majority Leader Denise Merrill (D-Mansfield) today launched a commission that will seek to identify opportunities for more regional collaborations designed to create efficiencies and save money for municipalities.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) will begin its work next Tuesday with the goal of recommending legislation during the 2010 session.

State Representative Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), House Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, was named chair of the MORE Commission.

"We can be doing more with less," Speaker Donovan said. "Our cities and towns have been hurt by the recession, and we've got to find new ways to help them. We need to think differently about how we are structured and how we perform certain functions. I am confident we can bring about real property tax reform by regionalizing certain activities that can both save money and improve the economic competitiveness of our state."

"We've talked for a long time about restructuring government at all levels across the state," said Rep. Merrill. "Now we're going to take action. I'm excited about the chance to bring some relief to our cities and towns and to bring about the kind of structural change that can deliver benefits for years to come."

"We need to give towns important new tools to achieve cost savings and lessen property tax burdens," said Rep. Sharkey. "We were able to get a number of initiatives moving last year as a result of the Smart Growth Task Force, and I expect this commission will build on that success."

Several bills concerning Smart Growth were passed last year that laid the foundation for increasing the state's economic competitiveness through regionalism. This commission is an expansion on that effort.

The MORE Commission will be comprised of 45 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and representatives of municipalities, regional organizations, education, business, unions and non-profits.

Speaker Donovan said the Commission will look at a wide spectrum of issues and opportunities facing municipalities: multi-town collaboratives, Board of Education functions, regionally-based organizations, collective bargaining, mandates, revenue sources, health care, and state grants.

In each of these areas, commission subcommittees will investigate costs, benefits, resources, legal obstacles and opportunities, potential savings, consolidation, and results based accountability (RBA) methods for tracking performance.

The MORE Commission will hold its first meeting on January 19.


January 5, 2010

SMART GROWTH

By Rep. Annie Hornish

My full-time job and background is in cytology, which is a laboratory science that deals with the microscopic identification of cancerous cells. My worldview has been shaped in part by my professional experience, and I sometimes am inclined to notice similarities between how cancers operate and how other destructive processes operate in our society. When I see inner cities struggling with decay and social inequities, and sprawling suburbs experiencing residential growth that stresses local services and budgets, I can't help but liken it to the uncontrolled growth of an invasive cancer.

Like many people, I've lost loved ones to cancer, including my father. From their experiences, I've learned the general lesson of the importance of understanding destructive processes so that we are better equipped to reduce their likelihood. With cancer, that means minimizing exposure to carcinogens and working to have a strong immune system. With urban decay and suburban sprawl, that means implementing a "smart growth" strategy.

Smart growth is perhaps best understood by considering its goals or outcomes. Smart Growth America (www.smartgrowthamerica.com) suggests six outcomes that reflect widely held values: 1) neighborhood livability 2) better access with less traffic; 3) thriving cities, suburbs, and towns; 4) shared benefits; 5) lower costs, lower taxes; and 6) preserving open space and natural resources.

These outcomes can be achieved by means that include designing neighborhoods that are "walkable", safe, convenient, attractive, affordable, employ compact building design, and that offer a range of housing opportunities and choices; transportation options that minimize congestion, pollute less, and save energy; putting the needs of existing communities first (guiding development to already built-up areas), preserving historic districts and cultural landmarks, and promoting mix land uses (clustered development involving a mix of stores, jobs, and homes); mitigating divisions by income and race that allow some areas to prosper while others languish in settings of diminishing opportunities; lowering costs and taxes by investing in improving what we already have rather than investing in new development (new development means more schools, roads, sewers, water, etc., as well as higher transportation costs for families); and finally, making preservation of open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas a priority in order to promote healthier air, cleaner water, and the protection of forests, farms, and wetlands for future generations.

Another informative website, www.smartgrowth.org, describes the importance of community and stakeholder collaboration, the fostering of distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place, and making development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective. This site describes issues surrounding smart growth as centering around community, quality of life, design, economics, environment, health, housing, and transportation.

To promote growth without restraint, to promote growth without control, is bound to exacerbate existing social and economic problems. It simply doesn't make sense to abandon existing infrastructure only to reconstruct it elsewhere—this is not a long-term solution and further, is an act of irresponsibility towards future generations.

Smart growth is about adding value and looking at the true costs--the comprehensive effect--of development, as well as planning for long-term outcomes. With the growing awareness and popularity of green living, smart growth holds the potential for immediate environmental benefits and economic advantages, and provides a mechanism to strengthen our sense of community and improve our quality of life.

To learn more about how Connecticut is working to implement and encourage smart growth principles, I have invited State Representative Brendan Sharkey, House Chairman of the Legislature's Planning and Development Committee and smart growth guru, to speak on the topic to the residents of our district, and he has graciously accepted. This event will be held on Thursday, January 21, 2009 at 6pm at the New Hartford Senior Center, 530 Main Street, New Hartford, CT, and you are all invited. Additionally, I have sent letters of invitation to the first selectmen in our district, asking them to spread the word to town officials, as well as letters to the Chairs of the Planning & Zoning Committees and Conservation Commissions. I hope to see you there!

Representative Hornish can be reached at Maryanne.Hornish@cga.ct.gov, or by phone at (860) (240-8522) (Capitol) or (860) 653-0729 (home).


January 2, 2010

REGION AGENDA, PART 6: CONNECTIONS EMPOWER METRO AREA

Paul Lachine illustration
Paul Lachine illustration

A half-century ago, Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. moved out of Hartford, to Bloomfield. The world has since changed. If Hartford were to lose a major employer today, the company might just as easily move to Des Moines, Atlanta or Austin.

Since most of the people who work at Hartford's major companies live in the suburbs, it follows that the suburbs have a vital interest in the health of the city, and vice versa. As residents of Greater Hartford think more about becoming a metropolitan region, an area in a position to gain another major employer, it's good to remember that Hartford must be a vibrant center, not a hole in the doughnut. Virtually every successful metro in the country has a lively city at its core.

Hartford's plan of conservation and development for the next 10 years, now being refined after public meetings in November, calls for "regional connectivity." How to achieve this connection?

The Obstacle

Yale political science professor Douglas Rae, who has served as New Haven's chief administrative officer, was asked at a program this fall what the biggest obstacle was for city-suburb cooperation in Connecticut. "Cost," he replied. Cities are hugely expensive to run and suburbs don't want to, or cannot, share the burden.

Hartford would appear to prove his point. The city's budget has gone from $422.4 million in 2002-03 to $535 million this fiscal year, a rate of increase that cannot possibly be sustained for much longer. This city and its unions are going to have to reinvent the workforce, as many private companies have done, and train fewer people to do more kinds of work. The city must also embrace sharing services with the region.

The Opportunities

City government is at least momentarily beset with uncertainty surrounding Mayor Eddie Perez's future. Mr. Perez is awaiting trial this coming spring on corruption charges. Though this is embarrassing and raises some trust issues among other municipal leaders, the city continues to function. Whatever happens to Mr. Perez, there are long-term opportunities for city-suburb cooperation that can increase the prosperity of the region.

Transportation: The most obvious is transit, and transit-oriented development. Connection by transit is so important to successful regions that many have taxed themselves to pay for it. Hartford has two major projects in the pipeline, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line and the Hartford- New Britain busway.

It's essential that the region support both projects. Both projects will encourage travel to the city and set the stage for transit-oriented development in the Union Station area. New housing as well as new clubs and restaurants in the Union Place entertainment district can attract the young adults who have been fleeing the state in droves. Suburbs and city can work together to create bicycle trails into the city from all sides, another amenity young (and older) workers find very attractive.

Economic development:City and suburbs can work together more closely on economic development. In the 19th century, the Connecticut Valley was lined with gun factories. Today it has, among other things, major hospitals. The MetroHartford Alliance is pushing to transfer some of the research at these institutions to market. The region could push for a new medical research center in Hartford.

In well-functioning metropolitan areas such as Portland, Ore., the distinction between city and suburb is beginning to fade. That seems an impossible goal for Greater Hartford, but let's start working together and see what happens.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 31, 2009

REGION AGENDA, PART 5: WHO WILL DO THE WORK?

In a discussion a few years ago about more regional activity in Greater Hartford, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka raised an important question: "Who will do the work?"

His point is well taken. If Greater Hartford is to become a metropolitan region and engage in more sharing of services and other regional initiatives, someone — a trained staff person — will have to research, coordinate, direct and administer each project or program. Most town governments are down to the bone and don't have extra people.

At the same time, there is no appetite for creating a new layer of county government; the idea of regional collaboration is to save money through greater efficiency and economies of scale.

What does that leave? The reflexive answer in Greater Hartford is the Capitol Region Council of Governments, a voluntary organization of 29 towns in the Hartford area.

CRCOG, or "crog," as it is widely known, has initiated and coordinated numerous regional programs, such as a regional purchasing council and the CAPTAIN Mobile Data Communication System, which links 80 police organizations to local, state and national criminal information files.

But CRCOG, too, is stretched thin. The agency has 20 employees, most of whom work in either transportation or public safety, those areas being where the funding and planning mandates are. The agency has taken on the task of creating a new regional solid-waste authority, among other projects.

So how much more CRCOG can do in its current configuration is open to question. The challenge is to create more regional capacity without breaking the bank. Here are some ideas:

  1. Create a bigger CRCOG. The state is divided into 15 planning regions, which are organized as regional councils of elected officials, regional councils of government or regional planning agencies. Some are tiny; one comprises four small towns in the Naugatuck Valley, while two others have six and seven towns, respectively. This is too many; California has 17 planning regions.

    Reduce the number of planning regions in Connecticut to, say, five, and merge a couple of the smaller ones into CRCOG, and it should have more staff capacity.

  2. Merge with another regional entity. If CRCOG merged with, say, the Metropolitan District Commission, the eight-town water and sewer authority that has a municipal charter, the result would be a strong, multifaceted regional agency.

  3. Create a policy institute. Earlier this year, former East Granby First Selectman David Kilbon and former Hartford chief administrative officer Lee C. Erdmann proposed the creation of a public policy center that would focus on regional and state issues. Mr. Kilbon and Mr. Erdman have gained support for the proposal and appear to be on the way to establishing the center, probably at a college or university. It would focus on nonpartisan research, consulting, brokering or coordinating projects and training public-sector workers. This idea has great potential.

  4. Use the Web. CRCOG is rolling out a pilot program in eight towns that will allow residents to apply for building permits and track their progress online. There are some other Web-based services in the pipeline. Expansion of these kinds of services ought to increase regional efficiency.

  5. Get the state more involved. The state can provide incentives and technical assistance for regional activity; indeed, it has begun to do so. The state Office of Policy and Management will hold a daylong conference on Jan. 14 at Central Connecticut State University on the mechanics of regional service delivery. The conference will cover everything from public safety and financial services to emergency communication, equipment sharing and animal control.

"It's best practices — how to do it," said OPM undersecretary W. David LeVasseur.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 30, 2009

REGION AGENDA, PART 4: REVENUE-SHARING ENABLES SMARTER GROWTH

Paul Lachine illustration
Paul Lachine illustration

The task force that studied smart, or responsible, growth under a 2007 law made a number of recommendations to Gov. M. Jodi Rell in early 2008, including: "Be fair. Promote equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of development and diminish the competition for revenue that biases land-use decisions."

Did that mean some kind of revenue-sharing among towns?

There has as yet been no proposal for local revenue-sharing in Connecticut. Nor has the idea exactly caught fire across the country, though more regions are beginning to study it. But in a state such as Connecticut that is heavily reliant on property taxes to fund local government, revenue-sharing may help create more cohesive metropolitan regions.

The idea is that each community in a region designates some percentage of a new tax stream or new tax base to a regional pool, where it is divided among all the towns in the pool based on some formula that may involve population or other variables.

Perhaps the best known example is the tax-base sharing program that's been in effect in Minneapolis-St. Paul for more than three decades. It applies only to nonresidential development created after the agreement went into effect. When a development is created in a particular community, that community keeps 60 percent of the added assessed value, and 40 percent is placed in a pool to be shared by the towns in the region.

Different variations of regional revenue-sharing can also be found in Dayton, Ohio; Rochester, N.Y.; the 14-town Hackensack Meadows District in New Jersey; and some other places. Other regions, Cleveland/Northeast Ohio for one, are studying the concept.

The principal advantage of regional revenue-sharing, at least theoretically, is that it reduces the winner-take-all, beggar-thy-neighbor competition for new tax-paying development, something that's been a problem in Connecticut for decades. Towns desperate for property tax revenue to pay for schools and local government have often made poor land-use decisions — given up farms and scenic vistas for strip malls and other developments they otherwise would have passed on.

But if all towns share the added tax revenue, the door is open for more rational regional planning and regional cooperation.

There can be drawbacks as well. Redistribution of tax base or revenue can create winners and losers; a town that just landed a major employer might be reluctant to give up some of the resulting taxes. So revenue-sharing could be a hard sell.

Nonetheless, the nature of regional planning is to put development in some places and not in others. If revenue-sharing helps that process, it should at least be on the table.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 29, 2009

REGION AGENDA, PART 3: HOW TO ACT REGIONALLY

Since the end of World War II, central Connecticut has been beset by suburban sprawl. Hartford has lost almost a third of its peak population, while former rural towns have boomed, although with low-density, auto-driven development.

In recent years, state government has tried to counter this trend with smart, or responsible, growth policies. As Greater Hartford thinks about becoming a more cohesive metro region, it must plan to grow smartly to save energy, cut pollution, preserve open space and save farms. The region should:

  1. REUSE AND REHABILITATE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE by focusing development in the town centers and transit corridors, not in the region's dwindling open space. That means, among other things, encouraging historic preservation and restoring brownfield sites

  2. PLAN REGIONALLY. The region should have a major downtown and an array of smaller town centers that are compact, lively, mixed-use and walkable.

  3. EXPAND HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES and transportation options, including bicycles.

    These principles are embedded in the state and regional plans of conservation and development. The problem with these plans is that they are mostly advisory. (One positive step, from a 2007 responsible growth law, is a requirement that when state agencies give a grant of $200,000 or more for real estate acquisition or development, the project must be consistent with the state plan.)

    Metropolitan Hartford cannot succeed as a region if it becomes an undifferentiated swath of strip malls and subdivisions. We need lively cities and towns and scenic forests and farms. The regional and state plans are a sensible guide. To assure that development more closely follow the smart-growth principles in these plans, the state could:

  4. CREATE MODEL ZONING REGULATIONS and other land-use tools so that towns are able to create the kind of mixed-use town centers envisioned by the regional and state plans. Traditional zoning separated uses; tried to keep the smelly factories away from the homes, etc. Now most of the factories are gone but the zoning rules remain, prohibiting what good planning is trying to encourage. Hamden this year became the first town in New England to embrace a different zoning philosophy, adopting a new code based more on the form of buildings rather than their use. Officials believe the new code will encourage mixed-use development along the town's three major north-south corridors. Some other towns, including Simsbury, are also looking at "form-based" codes.

  5. GIVE GRANTS TO SUPPORT THE POLICIES IN THE PLAN. The state cannot tell people where to live or build. But it can put its own money behind the kind of development its own plan calls for. The legislature made $11 million in regional incentive grants available in 2008, and they were snapped up quickly for regional shared-service projects. Budget constraints took the funding in 2009, although more of the federal stimulus funds could have been aimed at regional projects.

With the state facing a potential $6 billion deficit by 2013, regional budgeting might become a necessity. A state blue ribbon commission has been formed to work with towns in finding, and funding, regional efficiencies.

How might this work?

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, who will head the commission, offered a hypothetical example involving the Education Cost Sharing grants, which bring state aid to local schools. He said it might be possible to keep the classroom portion of the grants going to towns, while regionalizing ancillary functions such as food and janitorial services.

"We have to look at what makes sense to regionalize," he said. And then do it.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 28, 2009

REGION AGENDA, PART 2: SHARE SERVICES WHERE IT MAKES SENSE

On Nov. 10, Canton named a new police chief, who will be paid $97,000 a year on a four-year contract.

The new chief, John Murphy, is well qualified; that is not the point. The question is whether Canton should have named a police chief at all.

The town has 14 uniformed officers. Neighboring Simsbury has 35 officers. If they merged into one department, would both towns save significant amounts of money without losing current levels of service?

Actually, the town considered the possibility of merging with both Avon and Simsbury, said First Selectman Dick Barlow. But salaries in Avon and benefits in Simsbury were enough above those in Canton that the town would have lost money in the deal.

Mr. Barlow said Canton is still pursuing a merger of 911 call service with the other two towns, with whom it already shares a number of other services.

Does Every Town Need A Dial-A-Ride Van?

If Greater Hartford municipalities are to make a serious move toward regional collaboration, they must do what Canton did — look at what services can be shared, and do it where it makes sense.

Towns in the Farmington Valley have been in the forefront of a push to regionalize services. Avon, for example, is part of a remarkable 76 different regional service-sharing agreements; everything from tax assessor and animal control to senior meals and youth services.

To get the ball rolling for the rest of the region, it would be helpful to do a study of service sharing, and a survey of residents to see what services they are willing to regionalize. Do you care if the animal control officer or the building official comes from the next town? Does it matter if the dial-a-ride van is garaged elsewhere? Would you go for regional zoning?

The state, which has named a blue-ribbon commission to study regional efficiencies, should initiate such a process and pay for it. It is in the state's interest to help towns operate more efficiently and economically, to lower the overall cost of government.

The region is defined differently for different services. As a base, we should look to the federal definition of a metropolitan area — which is an urban core of more than 50,000, the surrounding county and adjacent counties that are economically and socially connected, as measured by commuting patterns. That would produce a Greater Hartford metro region of about 50 towns.

It would be relatively easy to draft a survey listing all municipal services and asking residents which they would regionalize. The harder step would be the cost study. But some such studies have been done in Connecticut.

Or An Emergency Call Center?

For example, the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency published a study in 2005 showing that the city of Bristol and four surrounding towns could save more than $1 million a year among them, and probably improve service, if they created a regional emergency telecommunications center instead of having each town run its own.

It didn't happen, because local police chiefs and others didn't want to give up their own 911 call centers. This may explain why the state has 107 emergency call centers, when the technology exists to reduce the number by at least 100, if not 106.

On the plus side, a dozen towns in the Northeast Connecticut Council of Governments studied the mandated revaluation of taxable property, usually contracted to outside firms at considerable expense, and discovered that if they pooled resources and hired permanent staff, they could cut costs by more than 50 percent, from $50 a parcel to $23 a parcel.

So they did.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 27, 2009

REGION AGENDA, PART 1: LITTLE FIEFDOMS OR POWERHOUSE REGION?

Is 2010 the year that regionalism ceases to be a four-letter word in Greater Hartford and instead becomes a way of doing business, a way of presenting ourselves to the world? Is this the year Greater Hartford starts to become a metropolitan region instead of a quilt of municipal fiefdoms?

It may be a matter of necessity. The state is projected to face a nearly $6 billion budget deficit by 2013, with no rainy day fund and little borrowing capacity left to offset it. Cuts in municipal aid will be on the table. Legislative leaders have just created a blue-ribbon commission headed by Rep. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden to work with local leaders to find regional efficiencies across the state that will offset the expected budget cuts.

It won't be easy. For centuries, residents of central Connecticut have carried forward the intense and competitive localism of their Puritan forebears. The state once had county government, but it eroded over the years and was finally put out of its misery 50 years ago. The notion of regional activity of any kind has historically evoked strong suspicion.

In early October, a delegation of business, civic, academic and nonprofit leaders from Greater Hartford traveled to Minnesota for a "regional leadership exchange." They met with leaders in Minneapolis-St. Paul to talk about five areas:

  1. REGIONAL DELIVERY of municipal services and sharing tax revenues.

  2. FOCUSING on the health care sector for economic development.

  3. A ROBUST TRANSPORTATION infrastructure and how to pay for it.

  4. ENGAGING HIGHER EDUCATION in a variety of development areas.

  5. THE ROLE of an entertainment and sports arena.

In the materials for the Minnesota trip, there's a wry definition of regional collaboration in Greater Hartford: "An unnatural act between unconsenting adults who have no idea why they are together and who always have something better to do."

The point of the trip was to change the definition, to make regional collaboration "a cornerstone of our region's economic development strategy." As averse as the "Land of Steady Habits" is to change, there is growing sentiment to explore the idea of more regional activity. Smart-growth advocates see benefit in regional land-use and transportation policies. And many town leaders, faced with heavy budget pressures in a down economy, are aggressively looking for ways to share services and expenses.

Connecticut has always been a high-cost state, but it was able to compete with other states with well-educated workers and a good quality of life. But there is a point at which cost trumps everything else. When Pratt & Whitney, the state's largest private employer, says it is moving 1,000 jobs to Georgia because costs are 40 percent lower, leaders have to pay attention. Regional cooperation can help the state get leaner and more efficient.

Reduced costs may not be the only benefit to regional collaboration.

The Brookings Institution has begun a multiyear project called "Blueprint for American Prosperity — Unleashing the Potential of a Metropolitan Nation." The thrust is to get the federal government to realize that metropolitan regions — not the states — are the drivers of the nation's economy, and to respond accordingly. The country's largest 100 metro areas generate 75 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to a Brookings policy paper.

Metros succeed because they have "drivers of prosperity": a preponderance of research universities, ports and airports, and adults with graduate degrees. They have relatively compact settlement patterns, which translates to more transit options, less sprawl and more bang from infrastructure investments.

When metros are really cooking, their concentration and aggregation of economic activity generates new patents, new businesses and new jobs.

Greater Hartford has a number of effective regional organizations — a council of governments, a metro business group, a water and sewer authority — but no regional governance or even a strong forum for regional decision-making. As a result, towns pursue their own interests and little is decided on a regional basis.

Meanwhile, more cohesive regions around the country are funding and building transit systems and transit-oriented development, renewing downtowns, adding affordable housing and attracting new businesses.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant


December 18, 2009

STATE LOSING OUT ON FEDERAL FUNDING FOR REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Lawmakers urge governor to allow state to receive federal dollars

Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden) and State Representative Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), House Chairman of the Planning & Development Committee, held a press conference at the State Capitol complex in Hartford today to highlight the millions of dollars in federal economic development funding the state is losing out on because the governor refuses to allow regions to apply for the grants.

Under an Economic Development Administration program intended to encourage regionalization and efficiency, states and municipalities that form economic development districts are eligible to apply for federal dollars after the federal government approves its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS).  In order for the federal funding to be released, that region's governor must also give consent.

Municipalities in the state have created these economic development districts and attempted to apply for the funding only to be denied approval from the governor's office.

"This is another example of how the state is losing out on federal money," Speaker Donovan said.  "This program encourages efficiency through regionalism, brings federal money into states, and results in projects that create new jobs through economic development.   We can not afford to leave this money sitting on the table.  These regions should not be blocked from bringing home federal dollars."

"We have regions in this state who want to apply for the funding today, but are either being discouraged to or have been denied by the administration.  It's baffling to learn that the Virgin Islands receive more federal dollars under this program than the State of Connecticut," Rep. Sharkey said.  "Encouraging development through regionalism reduces the cost of government, saves taxpayer money and intelligently prepares a path for Connecticut's economic future."

Sharkey noted that the General Assembly and the governor approved legislation (Public Act 09-231) on a bipartisan basis earlier this year that encourages regional cooperation among towns by forming regional economic development districts and making them eligible for programs such as this.  He said the benefits that can be achieved under that legislation are not being fully realized because there has been no change in the administration's policies in the six months since the bill was adopted.


December 7, 2009

STATE SHOULDN'T CUT ECONOMIC DRIVERS

By Christopher G. Donovan

It's the economy. It's job growth.

Just before Thanksgiving, Gov. M. Jodi Rell sounded the alarms on projected state budget deficits. She announced a $337 million mitigation plan to cut $84 million from already strapped municipalities and another $116 million in cuts that will devastate programs that promote job growth and services that protect our most vulnerable.

Before lurching forward with shortsighted and destructive cuts, consider this:

Further, we do not yet know the true extent of a possible deficit. We've seen projections that vary by as much as $200 million, and a new state comptroller's projection is $75 million lower than that of a month ago.

What also is clear is that a vital component of any economic rebound is job growth. We want to keep people in their jobs, put those out of work back to work, and move our economy forward.

To that end, House and Senate majority leaders convened a Job Growth Roundtable this fall, comprising Connecticut's best business and education leaders, economists, venture capitalists, labor leaders, and elected representatives. The group, like my Small Business Advisory Cabinet, is examining strategies to grow jobs in the short term and strengthen our competitiveness and maximize Connecticut's assets in the long term. Legislative proposals are expected in February.

In contrast, the actions requested by the governor would cut job growth and economic development programs, such as a $1.5 million cut to eliminate small business incubator program funding and suspending Connecticut youth employment program funding. We can't pretend there's no nursing shortage and suspend nurse training programs as she proposes.

Citing findings by the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee as well as the opinions of business executives that investment in innovation and education are keys to future economic and job growth, former Office of Policy and Management Secretary William Cibes wrote in the Hartford Courant, "[W]hy is the latest deficit mitigation plan full of proposals to undercut the building blocks of economic development? Why are "fund sweeps" of $6 million from the Biomedical Research Trust Fund and $10 million from the Stem Cell Research Fund being considered? Both support innovative research and development in an industry cluster that is one of Connecticut's leading competitive assets."

We also must protect our vulnerable populations. Some $85 million of the Governor's cuts would affect children and the elderly directly, or cut health care programs for the poor and disabled. She wants to cut $4.9 million to suspend after-school programs and $4.1 million to eliminate dental care for seniors on Medicaid.

Our willingness to bend, but not break, in the last budget go-round means that courthouses stayed open; digital resources, the Internet and book loan services remain offerings at public libraries; HUSKY was protected; students continue their educations at charter and magnet schools; and seniors and disabled individuals can get basic dental care.

Two task forces I established recently to address vulnerable populations — one on Children and the Recession, the other on Domestic Violence — are working hard to develop additional actions we can consider in the next session. Yes, we need to heed the warnings of deficit projections. But we need to consider cost-cutting and saving proposals that aren't debilitating to those already suffering and that don't dissuade job growth. Downsizing or closing prisons deserve serious consideration. Pooling health care for municipalities would save them money. We cannot afford to reduce the estate tax for the wealthy as the Governor insisted. We need to look at new findings of the Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes, which has identified more than $100 million in potential savings.

Our response must be thoughtful and deliberate. Connecticut deserves more than a slash and burn approach at this critical time.

Christopher G. Donovan (D-Meriden) is speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives.


September 6, 2009

PROPERTY TAX STABILITY WAS THE BIG WINNER IN STATE BUDGET BATTLE

By Brendan Sharkey

Now that our longest summer of budget deliberations is finally over, the General Assembly's greatest achievement may be the easiest to overlook.

Unlike so many of our sister states, the legislature's two-year budget, which will become law without the governor's signature, will not raise local property taxes by drastically cutting aid to municipalities and schools.

Earlier this summer, we all watched the budget crisis in California that led to drastic reductions in municipal aid and the literal raiding of local contingency funds to keep the state afloat. This same scenario played out to one degree or another in most other states throughout the country. What few in Connecticut realize is that on a percentage basis, our fiscal crisis was worse than California's. Yet, we in the legislature held firm to the notion that cutting funds to cities and towns was not the way to solve the state's short-term budget crisis.

And for good reason. Connecticut already relies too heavily on the property tax. In 2007, property taxes collected by our cities and towns represented 40 percent of all the taxes raised in our state. Though a more stable revenue source than the income tax and sales tax, the property tax is the most regressive because it bears no relationship to wealth and the taxpayers' ability to pay. The property tax also dampens economic development in our state by reducing affordability and discouraging job growth. As our towns' primary source of revenue, it promotes bad development decisions in a constant effort to grow local grand lists.

Clearly, we need to re-balance our tax system in Connecticut to move us away from our overreliance on the property tax. Over the last three years, the legislature and the governor have made significant progress toward property tax reform.

In addition to major increases in state aid to towns and schools, we've made significant progress in promoting regional efficiencies and "smart growth" initiatives that encourage better coordination of economic development, housing, transportation and environmental policies. I'm proud to say that major legislation I developed through a year-long public participation process was passed and signed into law earlier this year that puts Connecticut at the forefront of these initiatives nationally.

Yet despite this recent success, the crisis we faced this year — a sudden 25 percent loss of revenue caused by a global economic crisis — could easily have caused the legislature to abandon all efforts toward property tax reform by balancing the state budget off the backs of our municipalities. But, we didn't. In fact, the idea of major cuts to municipal aid and education was a non-starter for our legislative leaders throughout their budget negotiations with the governor.

Put simply, to solve the state's budget problem by forcing towns to increase their local property taxes would have sent our state in precisely the wrong direction, with devastating impacts on Connecticut's longterm economic growth.

In contrast, Gov. M. Jodi Rell spent most of the budget debate in denial. Throughout the year, while the legislature was cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget, the governor was continually underestimating the true size of the deficit — by as much as $800 million. This, of course, was a political game to deny the need for additional revenues to keep our towns and cities whole.

When the legislature passed a bill to require a consensus on the size of the deficit, incredibly, the governor vetoed it. The General Assembly actually had to override the governor's veto to force reality upon her. Recalling the famous line from the movie "Casablanca," the governor now seems to be "Shocked! Shocked!" by the legislature's budget, yet she remains unwilling to veto it in the face of that reality.

To be sure, there is much more work to be done on property tax reform. But as we hear from the governor and others who complain about the final product — particularly those who argue that more cuts should have been made — remember that those cuts inevitably would have come from state aid to towns and schools, resulting in higher property taxes.

And for those who complain that it took too long, remember what other states did to their cities and schools in less time, how long it took our governor to acknowledge reality, and what we in the General Assembly spent our summer fighting to protect.

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-88, is House co-chairman of the legislature's Committee on Planning and Development. Readers may write him at 600 Mount Carmel Ave., Hamden 06518. His e-mail address is brendan.sharkey@cga. ct.gov.


May 21, 2009

SMART GROWTH PACKAGE INCLUDES NEW REVENUE SOURCE FOR TOWNS
Regionalism and Sales Tax Sharing Equals Win-Win for Municipalities

State Representative Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), House Chair of the Planning and Development Committee, hailed House passage of legislation he spearheaded to more efficiently deliver government services while saving taxpayers money.  The legislation is a key first step to real property tax reform through regional cooperation incentives. 

House Bill 6585, An Act Concerning Regionalism, includes a provision to return a portion of the sales tax to towns as an incentive for participating in regional initiatives.  The state sales tax currently generates about 3.5 billion dollars annually.  Beginning in 2011, the legislation would return a portion of the state sales tax revenue generated within participating regions. 

"Everyone understands that in today's economic climate, reducing the cost of government and making smart choices about development is the key to Connecticut's economic future," Rep. Sharkey, co-sponsor and driving force behind the legislation, stated.  "This bipartisan package of legislation accomplishes both goals."

In addition, towns who agree to participate in more efficient, streamlined government and education operations would be able to access federal economic development funds for the first time, and by sharing property tax revenues generated from large new developments.  These new revenue streams would offer permanent property tax relief to participating towns.

"A key element to resolving our budget crisis is streamlining state government and promoting regional initiatives," Speaker Christopher G. Donovan stated.  "A critical component of property tax reform is moving beyond property taxes to fund town services.  This legislation moves us in that direction."

"Legislation creating and implementing smart growth initiatives are among the most important actions we will be taking this year," Majority Leader Denise Merrill said. "Our future quality of life depends on harnessing sprawling development and to plan intelligently for the kind of Connecticut we leave to those who follow us."

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

In addition to the regionalism initiative, the General Assembly has additional pending legislation to overhaul Connecticut's long-range planning, better coordination of state programs for open space and brownfield remediation, and streamlining the approval process for new development proposals.   


April 8, 2009

SHARE SERVICES: TOWNS CAN SAVE BY TEAMING UP

More and more, Connecticut's cities and towns are comparing notes on how to make the municipal buck go further while trying to maintain the services their residents need. With the economy down and taxes high and trending higher, using this kind of neighbor-to-neighbor cooperation as a springboard to broader and lasting regional compacts makes sense.

There's no reason for towns to go it alone as they try to solve the riddle of rising costs. Enfield Town Manager Matthew Coppler, at his town council's urging, recently e-mailed towns in his area to ask how they are approaching this year's budgeting battle. What a sensible idea. Municipalities across the state are facing increased labor costs, higher capital expenses, reduced savings, and taxpayers who are worried about their jobs and rising taxes.

Sharing information about negotiating with labor unions, making cooperative purchasing arrangements and other money-saving ideas will help municipalities work through this downturn. They should also use this opportunity to work toward more lasting ways to increase efficiency and save money that will serve them for decades to come.

Simsbury, Avon, Farmington, Canton, Granby and East Granby officials have long met monthly to discuss issues they have in common. Recently, they applied for a federal grant to study how to combine all of their emergency dispatch systems into one. Each town's dispatch system is in need of an upgrade; the towns would save considerable money by investing in one system to serve all of them. Sharing a dispatching system also opens the way to more efficient coordination of police, ambulance and fire services and might naturally lead to combining departments across the region.
Better service, more resources and lower overhead are good arguments for such consolidation.

Many towns are already sharing the costs of street sweepers; are bidding together for products such as heating oil and office supplies; and in some cases, are hiring regional school officials. These are ways to make municipal government work to best advantage and to position the state as a desirable place to live and do business.


February 18, 2009

A REGIONAL APPROACH WOULD EASE THE BURDEN ON TAXPAYERS
By Rep. Melissa Olson

There is an interesting dance at the State Capitol every year.  Mayors and other municipal chief executives come to Hartford looking for more state funding and state officials do their best to oblige, recognizing the importance of municipal aid and its effect on property taxes.  In good times, we find the money.  In bad times, we hold the line.  In bad times of historic proportions….well, that is where we are today… we have the opportunity to do something historic.

Towns like Norwich are hamstrung because the property tax is their only means of raising revenue.  There is no local income tax, local option tax, or local hotel tax.  The property tax is it, and all of us as property taxpayers know that the burden is heavy.

There is a solution: Regionalism.  By reorganizing some local services regionally, towns like Norwich would save money and property taxpayers wouldn't have to shoulder as much of the load.  Regionalism makes sense.  For instance, Connecticut has more separate 911 dispatch services than the entire state of California.  Regional dispatch would save money and increase efficiency.  That is just one example of a common sense, money saving idea through regional cooperation. 

In fact, there is a proposal that would funnel a portion of the state's sales tax receipts to cities and towns that regionalize based on a specific set of guidelines outlined by the state's Smart Growth Task Force.

Step One – Towns would sign on to participate in regional coordination efforts including:

As an incentive for towns that sign on, the state would grant relief from certain state mandates – providing an immediate cost savings.

Step Two – Towns, through their regions, would implement their regionalization plans. As an incentive for towns to implement these plans, the state would re-direct a portion of the state sales tax generated within the region back to member towns.

There are other proposals that would decrease municipal costs while maintaining the high level of service we have come to expect including participating in collective purchasing and administrative agreements to share ever increasing costs. Municipalities would also have the opportunity to save on health care costs by participating in the state employee health insurance plan.

I am hosting a forum in Norwich to discuss smart growth and regional approaches. Representative Brendan Sharkey, the chairman of the Planning & Development Committee and chair of the Smart Growth Task Force will be our guest speaker.  The forum will take place on February 17th at 5:30 pm in room 335 of Norwich City Hall.  I hope you will come to learn more and engage in a constructive discussion regarding how a regional approach could help cities and towns prosper.

Melissa Olson is a Deputy Majority Leader and co-chair of the House Democrats' Screening Committee. Melissa was first elected as the State Representative from the 46th District—Norwich in 2002.


February 5, 2009

REGIONALISM GETS A WELCOME BOOST

Certainly it's an issue overshadowed by the dramatic drop in Connecticut's financial fortunes and its consequences for state government, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell gave a modest boost to the concept of regionalism in her budget address to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

With local communities hard-pressed to pay for services for their citizens without raising taxes and the fiscally-distressed state unable to provide increased aid for municipalities, Rell is proposing to remove all statutory limits on inter-municipal cooperation and is recommending creating two funds to provide incentives to those communities that cooperate regionally.

As Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch -- a strong supporter of regional approaches when he served in the Assembly as a state senator -- observed, "It's an idea whose time has come."

Indeed. It's a concept that is oft discussed at the state Capitol, but seldom placed into practice.

Not that there aren't regional approaches already being taken. We do have a handful of regional school districts and some communities have formed regional health districts and emergency communications systems.

But for every regional activity that's succeeded, there are two or three others that have failed. Connecticut's 169 distinct municipalities in most endeavors desire to remain that way.

However, times are changing and as communities look to cut spending while maintaining a high level of services, regionalism offers an answer.
Rell has proposed a modest $40 million to use as a carrot to encourage communities to band together for activities such as trash collection, highway maintenance, tax collection and animal control. In addition, she would provide another $10 million to communities to help pay for capital equipment such as plows or dump trucks and offer 10 percent "bonuses" on some state aid programs.

Thinking regionally has cost-effective benefits for municipalities, although there are times when finding agreement takes time and difficult negotiations. However, if the state and its 169 towns and cities are going to position themselves for the future in this brave new economic order, they had better start expanding their cooperation. We urge lawmakers to embrace the regionalism effort.