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State mandates big regionalization changes

weston-swrpa-logoWhen it comes to changing the regional planning structure in Connecticut, Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein doesn’t object so much to what the state wants towns to do, as to how it wants them to do it.

The state legislature passed Bill No. 6629, an act concerning regionalism in Connecticut, despite the efforts of the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) — the eight-town regional planning agency Weston belongs to — to fight it. Ms. Weinstein told the selectmen at their meeting Thursday, June 20, that SWRPA plans to discuss this week hiring an attorney to look into the legality of the bill.

“Part of the problem I have with this is from a legal perspective,” Ms. Weinstein said.

The new law mandates that by Jan. 1, 2015, all planning regions must be a council of governments (COGs). A COG is a different structure than a regional panning agency (RPA) like SWRPA, in that the membership is made up of the chief elected officials of each of the member municipalities; RPAs also include as voting members appointed representatives from each municipality.

Ms. Weinstein has stated for some time that she is in favor of switching to a COG format for the transportation district. What she doesn’t like, she said, is the way the state is trying to make municipalities do this.

Ms. Weinstein’s argument is that in order for the member towns of SWRPA to change the structure, each town must do so by passing an ordinance authorizing the change. In Weston, that procedure includes holding a public hearing and then having the Board of Selectmen vote.

Ms. Weinstein’s argument is there is no guarantee that the board would vote yes to having the first selectman become the sole representative of the town on the COG.

“This is going to be the next big issue,” Ms. Weinstein said. “What we’re looking at is does the state have the right to mandate this, given that statutorily, we can’t do that unless you [the selectmen] vote to allow me to do that.”

Other towns have similar issues, with some requiring a vote of a 100-plus member Representative Town Meeting or of a town council to make the change from participating in an RPA to participating in a COG.

Selectman Dennis Tracey pointed out that under Weston’s town charter, the selectmen could also decide that this is a significant enough structural change that it should be brought to a Town Meeting vote, which would complicate it even further.

What if no one joins

Another problem is there are four members of SWRPA that are “adamantly opposed” to changing to a COG. “Does a COG really exist if no one joins it? And what happens to the funding?” Ms. Weinstein asked.

Unfortunately, she said, the answer is that towns that do not join a mandated COG would not have access to state transportation funds that will only be distributed through the regional planning districts.

Another issue Ms. Weinstein has with the new mandate is the state wants the regions to not only be in charge of transportation issues like they are now; they are also being asked to establish a regional human services council, she said.

Ms. Weinstein said she and many other chief elected officials do not have backgrounds in human services and would not be qualified to make those decisions for the region; therefore, they would need to hire people to do that work, and the funding for that is uncertain at best.

Mr. Tracey said he sees big problems not only with the legalities of the bill, but also with its underlying premise.

“I’ve been opposed to COGs from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s clear to me it’s the state trying to create a structure under which larger groups of municipalities can be charged with the responsibility of areas including asset transfer and taxation. And this is the first step for the state to do this, in my opinion,” he said.

The fact that towns can opt out of a COG and yet would lose money that would otherwise be allocated to them if they did so poses what Mr. Tracey believes are “serious legal issues … I find this to be a deeply flawed bill,” he said.

Confusing

Ms. Weinstein said she is not as concerned with the chief elected officials making decisions or allowing certain services to be regionalized; of greater concern to her, she said, is the “top-down model for transportation” — which seemed like a good idea at first, she said — becoming too confusing and too much. “Maybe eventually” things like state road plowing and bridge building and repair, as well as human services would all become things the regional planning districts would be responsible for, she said.

“I don’t think it means, necessarily, that we’d have a separate taxing structure, but by default, we would have to increase our taxes to cover those services, especially if we can’t be guaranteed that money by the state,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Mr. Tracey drew laughter from the board and the audience when he said facetiously, “Wait. You think the state would give us the responsibility without giving us the money?”

Bigger regions

Another problem with the regionalization bill the selectmen discussed is after becoming a COG, the state then wants planning districts to join together with other towns to become even bigger COGs — probably with a minimum of 14 towns in each. In many likely scenarios, Weston would in essence be competing for funding with municipalities like Danbury, Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk, as well as other smaller towns — but few as small as Weston.

“What happens to Weston? At least now we get the crumbs,” Ms. Weinstein said, adding that with significantly larger regions, there would be very few “crumbs” left if money is allocated to big projects in cities in the region. If one project takes all the available funding, that means “smaller municipalities will really get shut out,” she said.

One thing she said the town might need to consider — especially if other towns in SWRPA do not agree to forming a COG — is joining a neighboring district instead. “Our group works so well together … that would be a shame,” Ms. Weinstein said, although she acknowledged there might also be advantages to joining a district with towns to the north like Redding and Ridgefield.

Selectman David Muller pointed out that even if SWRPA and others plan to fight the legality and validity of the bill, the town still needs to take the necessary steps to move forward with making the change within the mandated timeframe.

There would be budget implications the town would need to consider, too, he said, and those discussions are going to start soon.

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