Regional governance: Not an option, but a necessity

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The issue of regional cooperation, regionalism, regional governance is gradually rising from a faint whisper to an almost audible level of tone in the Land of Steady Habits where the myth of municipal home rule reigns supreme.  I have been involved with issues of regional cooperation for close to 30 years in various capacities. I have observed the concept progressing in symbolic or fragmented ways, a little here, a little there; but not in the systemic ways that can achieve a more dynamic economy, and overcome the many constraints we now experience in our current mode of state/municipal governance.

Persuasive arguments in favor of regional governance have been difficult to advance in our political environment of ingrained attitudes.  However, compelling evidence of need can be found in labor statistics which appear in the Town Profiles published by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC).   I compiled statistics for 30 of our 169 towns, 18 percent of municipalities comprising 37 percent of the state’s population; selecting the 10 largest by population, the 10 smallest, and a smattering in between.  This is what I learned:

  • In aggregate the 30 municipalities employ only 23 percent of their resident labor force within the town. The rest find employment in the greater surrounding region.  No municipality employs more than 33 percent of its residents within the town.  The smaller the municipality, the more it is dependent on the regional economy to sustain its residential tax base with employment and its community with services.
  • In aggregate the 30 municipalities employ only 23 percent of their resident labor force within the total employment of town enterprises and organizations. The remaining 77 percent come from the surrounding region.  The highest percentage of resident employment to total employment in any town is 54 percent.

Assuming that the statistical patterns of these 30 municipalities are representative of the 169 municipalities in our state taken as a whole, a number of inferences come from this information.

  • If our labor statistics suggest a regional pattern of existence, our patterns of commerce and transportation must also be inherently regional.
  • If our commerce is regional, it must be dependent on a quality of work force education and preparation in the greater region it draws upon, and not just the specific municipality of its mailing address.
  • If our commerce is regional and depends on a regional support system of supply chain and logistics, then it must depend on the governments of that region, as a group, to provide reliable infrastructure to make those relationships work in a dependable and cost-effective manner.
  • A town’s economic well-being, as measured by its grand list, is more likely to be influenced by what happens within its region than what happens within its borders.

Let me give that last point a different spin.  If a municipal mayor or first select-person promised his/her voters that his/her term would be devoted 100 percent to nothing but generating jobs and tax revenue for his/her municipality, only 23 percent of that effort would be effective.

The rest goes to the region, or comes from the region, over which he/she has little direct influence, …unless he/she is part of a strong regional government that is pooling its resources and talents, and pulling in the same direction rather than competing with each other for a small pot.

The obvious conclusion is that, while we cling to the notion of municipal home rule, we inherently exist on a regional basis.

The problem is that we have no effective governmental platforms at the regional level to manage and optimize regional performance.  In truth, municipalities control little beyond local zoning and land use policy which has contributed to our pattern of urban sprawl and inefficient transportation as towns compete with each other for development to support their property tax base, their local ATM.  But in fragmenting land use policy, they fragment transportation patterns that might be made more efficient and economical with better planning on a regional basis.  And the state, while on the one hand tip-toeing around the gospel of municipal home rule in some areas, has proven to be relatively ineffective at micromanaging from above other aspects of planning and economic development among the 169 towns.

Here is another truth. No business that may come into our state will do so on the basis of one municipality’s competitive offerings.  It will look at regions that make the most business sense, because any astute business person will know what our municipal leaders seem unwilling to accept: no single municipality can fulfill a business’ needs, just as no single municipality can fulfill all the needs of all its citizens.

That gets us to the next issue: what are our regions? The state, among its various agencies has defined an array of regions that do not align neatly with one another.  The two closest regional structures are the old boundaries of eight counties, and the current structure of nine Councils of Government/Regional Planning Organizations (COG/RPO) which really do not have as much authority as their titles might suggest.

This writer would suggest that we have six regions based on their intrinsic characteristics and relationships of component municipalities:

  • Northwest Region, basically Litchfield County
  • North-Central Region, basically Hartford and Tolland Counties
  • Northeast Region, basically Windham County
  • Southwest Region, basically Fairfield County with Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley communities added
  • South-Central Region, basically New Haven and Middlesex Counties
  • Southeast Region, basically New London County

This structure is important for three reasons:

  • Each of these regions has distinct characteristics from the others that confer advantages and/or require unique economic and social service planning.
  • The regions, unlike the current COG structure, are of sufficient size and diversity to create the potential for economies of scale that municipalities and the current COGs cannot.
  • The regions create an opportunity for more focused delivery of State services and aid, with the component municipalities of the regions negotiating among themselves how that service or aid is deployed to meet their shared and distinct needs.

Our current economic crisis is motivating some of our leaders to consider Regional Something-or-Other as an element of the solutions to our shared dilemma.  Historically, the vision of regional cooperation has often been myopic, focused primarily on cost-cutting at the municipal level and sharing of services and equipment with neighboring towns, but avoiding linkage with the urban centers as much as possible.  There are much greater opportunities, if we are really committed to growing the state’s economy and leveraging government expenditures to greatest benefit as we must in order to transcend our fiscal predicament.

Beyond saving expense of government services through regional consolidation, an additional justification is to create greater effectiveness out of the resources we now have at the municipal level by consolidating them at a regional level where more specialization can occur in the process of reducing redundancy among 169 towns all doing the same things to varying degrees, but not as expertly as they might as shared resources to one another.

The most compelling reason in the context of the state’s and municipalities’ dire economic situation is that regional governance is a vital platform on which we can effectively attract and retain business growth with improved service and contained cost.  This does not propose the end of municipal government, but a refocus of resources and inter-municipal cooperation into a truly effective structure that marries cities and suburbs and creates a more manageable structure at the state level.

We embraced regional cooperation in order to participate in the Amazon HQ2 beauty contest.  And we launched a regional effort during the Rell administration to save the Groton Sub Base from being torpedoed by the Department of Defense in a base consolidation drive. But we can no longer afford to wait until opportunity or crisis comes knocking at our door to think and act and be regional as if it were a game of pick-up basketball.  It must become our operating mode to compete in a global economy where size matters, and 169 villages don’t cut it.

But if logic and statistics alone are not sufficient to advance the proposition of regional governance in the Land of Steady Habits, perhaps the angst of last year’s budget negotiations and fears of what may await us might give us pause consider words attributed to Ben Franklin under comparably existential circumstances: “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Connecticut, still revolutionary! Live the dream.

Sidney F. Gale, CPA, CIA, CFE, CGMA, MBA has been engaged in various public services capacities in areas of land use planning, transportation planning, economic development and regional cooperation with municipal and regional organizations for the past 30 years.

What do you think?

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