New Canaan became the seventh town in the South Western Regional Planning Agency to join the newly formed Western Connecticut Council of Governments following the Town Council's approval June 18.
The WCCOG will be one of nine inter-governmental entities after the dissolution of the current 15 regional planning agencies.
SWRPA -- a transportation and development-focused alliance comprised of New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Weston, Westport and Wilton -- has agreed to join with the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials to form the WCCOG, the second largest council of governments in Connecticut.
SWRPA Executive Director Floyd Lapp told the Town Council that the merger has been imminent since the state decided to shrink the number of planning regions.
"We have no choice," he said, adding that the 52-year-old SWRPA "will be out of business on Dec. 31."
In 2010, Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) created the Municipal Opportunities Regional Efficiencies Commission and invited legislators, town officials, advocates and citizens to uncover ways for municipalities to be more financially efficient.
Following legislation adopted last June, all regional planning agencies and councils of elected officials must become a council of governments with a minimum of 14 towns or cities.
The Housatonic Valley agency is made up of 10 municipalities, including Ridgefield, Redding and Danbury. When it officially joins with SWRPA, the new agency will have 18 towns and cities and will represent nearly 600,000 people.
"We opted to merge with the Housatonic Valley region because we thought that was the area that we had the most in common with," Lapp said, "rather than going east, to Greater Bridgeport."
The largest is the Capitol Region Council of Government in the Hartford area, which has 30 municipalities and a total population of nearly 1 million people. The Greater Bridgeport COG includes Fairfield, Trumbull and Stratford.
With the merger, the WCCOG will receive about $550,000 for regional planning funds on top of at least $1 million in federal grants for transportation, according to Lapp. By joining forces with the Housatonic Valley region, Lapp said, SWRPA members would have "resources like we never had before."
Local leaders have used regional planning agencies to meet and discuss common issues, such as transportation, emergency management, development and communications. Lapp said the COGs would essentially have the same responsibilities.
The COG structure looks to the local chief elected officials -- the first selectman, in New Canaan's case -- as the decision-makers and includes a volunteer planning commission with one representative from each city or town, who must be a member of the municipality's Planning and Zoning Commission, to advise on regional planning issues.
SWRPA is comprised of a 22-member volunteer board, including two members from New Canaan. The number of volunteers each town sent was based on the municipality's population.
Under the approved ordinance, the Board of Selectmen will have to appoint one of its members as an alternate representative in case the first selectman is unable to attend a WCCOG meeting.
Three councilmen -- Roger Williams, John Emert and Kevin Moynahan -- voted against the ordinance.
Williams wanted the Town Council to decide who the alternate would be.
"By this ordinance, we're abdicating our authority to select an alternate," Williams said. "We're turning that over to the selectmen. That's one thing I would like to see the Town Council maintain control of."
Emert suggested the vote be postponed.
"I learned a lot this evening that wasn't in the deck," he said, citing the appointment of an alternate and the funding structure of the new entity. "I'm concerned with what I still don't know (which) may be anything or may be something."
The ordinance was approved with seven votes, the minimum required for it to pass.
COGs do not have the authority to tax, but they can determine projects based on money received from state and federal governments. In addition, as is with the current structure, the new agency would ask for dues from its members. According to SWRPA's latest annual report, the agency raised $121,997 from local dues, which are primarily used toward transportation projects, in fiscal year 2013. Lapp said the dues are based on population and land area but the criteria may change once the region's COG is officially formed.
Williams said he was concerned with that funding structure.
"Are we going to be paying for Stamford and Greenwich?" Williams asked Lapp, who said focusing on regional projects often results in such situations.
"Some will end up with very, very little. Others will end up with more," Councilman Steve Karl said. "It has to be the way it works."
Lapp noted that the WCCOG would only have three cities -- Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury -- and, therefore, most of the decision-making likely would benefit the towns.
"The way I'm viewing it is that the voices and the votes would come from places much like New Canaan -- Wilton, Weston, Ridgefield, Redding, Darien," Lapp said.
The official recognition of the new region is subject to approval by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, which requires at least 60 percent of the municipalities in the group to adopt an ordinance recognizing their COGs. None of the towns in the Housatonic Valley region has adopted such an ordinance yet, though Lapp said they're on the verge of doing so. The only SWRPA town that still has to vote to join the COG is Norwalk.
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