Chief elected officials of the municipalities in the South Western Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (SWRMPO) — including Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein — gathered in Hartford Tuesday, April 30, to voice serious concerns about legislation in process that could mandate increased regionalization of public services and government in the state. They were joined by members of the board of the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA).
The eight municipalities served by SWRMPO and SWRPA are Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport, and Wilton.
According to a press release issued by SWRPA, central to the SWRMPO members’ concerns is HB 6629, An Act Concerning Regionalism in Connecticut, which was passed earlier this month by the General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee and is awaiting consideration by the House.
Before the House vote, it is expected that the language of the bill will change to reflect the recommendations of the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission, which are scheduled for presentation later this week, the release said.
Among potential legislative developments that most concern SWRMPO members are:
• Requiring every region to adopt a Council of Governments (COG), even though this may not always be the optimal structure. Imposing this requirement without soliciting input from the public and municipal and regional boards and commissions ignores local needs and specificities.
• Mandated consolidation that increases the number of towns and cities in each region. This could force municipalities with very dissimilar priorities and needs to share resources and collaborate on planning.
• Destabilization of local budgets and tax structures. Residents are accustomed to seeing the totality of their local taxes and fees allocated to schools and services in their own municipalities. They worry that increased regionalization may lead to a redistribution of their local taxes to other municipalities and further local tax increases.
• Loss of flexibility and increased bureaucracy for municipalities, with the advent of larger regions.
• More unfunded mandates. COGs have the authority to perform a broader range of services than other regional governance structures. Imposing the COG structure on all regions may lead to delegating many state responsibilities to the regions, with no provision for regional staffing or financing.
• The potential for regional taxation. Additional services performed at the regional level will require funding.
Ms. Weinstein said one of her biggest concerns about the proposal is consolodating regions. “They want to make the current 14 regions into five or possibly even just three,” Ms. Weinstein said.
She is concerned that small towns like Weston will get “lost” in larger regional groupings, and that larger regions will mean municipalities with less in common trying to work together.
Bill Brennan, vice chairman of SWRMPO and First Selectman of Wilton, said in the press release the proposals on the table are of particular concern for those in this area.
“While many of our counterparts from other regions share these concerns, they are especially acute for the southwestern region,” he said. “Residents of our area contribute more than 40% of the state’s tax revenues every year, and in many of our towns, they receive only two or three cents back from the state on each of their tax dollars. Local taxes and fees are the only significant source of funding for their local services. Any dilution of that funding will have grave consequences for our cities and towns,” he said.
“My colleagues and I are ready and willing to work with the legislature to achieve more efficient and cost-effective delivery of services to our constituents through regional cooperation,” continued Mr. Brennan. “But this must be a collaborative effort that takes into account the unique demographic and economic needs of our municipalities. We strongly oppose any blanket mandate to adopt a COG structure or to incorporate additional municipalities into our region,” he said.
“The state DOT has confirmed that our existing regional planning organization has the resources to meet all requirements for federal transportation funding, and the structure has functioned well for our municipalities for several decades,” Mr. Brennan said. “We do not believe that there is any need to change it. If any change is to occur, however, the decision must be made carefully, and in close consultation with our municipalities.”