Elected officials oppose council system
Five of the eight chief elected officials of the South Western Regional Planning Agency told a state legislator Tuesday that smaller is working just fine with the regional planning group.
"If the state feels they are creating a regional type of government with councils of 20 or more town chief elected officials, I can tell you that is a very poor way to make decisions," Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan said. "The best organizational structures are smaller ones."
The group met at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Tuesday to oppose House Bill 6629, arguing the proposal to consolidate the state's 14 planning regions into councils of governments would especially harm Fairfield County leaders' ability to plan transportation projects and possibly lead to higher property taxes and much less autonomy.
More than half a dozen legislators from the region, including state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton; Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, and L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, were also on hand to express doubts about the plan.
"We're the smallest town in Fairfield County, and what I would be worried about would be losing our voice," Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said. "If we had to work with a region of 28 municipalities, I feel we might face a serious lack of funding."
If the bill is approved, the state's 14 planning regions would be split up and redistricted by 2015 into councils of government, the composition and size of which would be approved by the state Office of Policy and Management.
The bill provides a formula for providing state funding to cover the greater administrative costs of larger regions, with newly formed regions receiving a higher amount of planning funds based on the number of people in their incorporated region.
Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei said revising the boundaries of planning regions seemed like a precursor to a county form of government, raising concerns about taxpayers of smaller towns paying more tax that would be used in ways that don't get results.
Tesei said the structure could result in designation of a wider region's funding to counteract poverty in urban areas, a laudable goal, but one better achieved through a focus on reducing crime and improving the quality of life in those areas to expand their own tax base.
"If I thought giving funding to a community without the same level of resources would make a difference, I'd support it wholeheartedly," Tesei said. "We're talking about the poor urban areas here, which have been a struggle for 50 years. I just see if this happens and we continue to go down this road where the state is imposing, then Connecticut continues to decline as a place to live."
The of eight municipalities represented by SWRPA -- Greenwich, Stamford, Wilton, Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan, Weston and Westport -- share enough commonality of interests and geographic similarity to make regional cooperation and planning fruitful, he said.
"The other part of this that is lost for the communities is the greater involvement of our volunteer board, and we'd be losing the ability to bring in their expertise," Tesei said. "There is great overall skepticism about this."
State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the officials some of their concerns were unfounded, sparring with them over whether the council-of-government structure could legally be authorized by the state to levy taxes on member towns and cities.
Leaders said they envisioned the government sooner or later requiring regions to devolve a greater number of services including housing and environmental protection, to the regions.
"Councils of government don't have taxing authority," Rojas maintained.
While Rojas said while the bill could be amended to exempt the eight municipalities from participating in a council of governments, a reduction in reform of government structure on a statewide basis is a hindrance to the state's economic health.
"Connecticut is the poster child for hyper-duplication of services," Rojas said. "We have 169 towns and 318 fire departments."
In response, Brennan said the greatest obstacle to the state's economic potential is the drag caused by labor unions, particularly in the public sector. A concession deal obtained from state unionized workers by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that guaranteed no layoffs for four years illustrated the clout the unions have to preserve their benefits and blunt efforts to make services more efficient.
"We're not a high-cost state because of our fire departments; we're a high-cost state because of unions," he said.
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