NEW COMMISSION • How can the state help towns work together?
January 16, 2010
We do not envy state Rep. Brendan Sharkey his new challenge.
Mr. Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden, has been named to head a blue-ribbon commission charged with finding money-saving efficiencies through regional cooperation. With towns struggling and the state facing a possible $6 billion deficit by 2013, sharing of municipal services can and should be a way to economize.
But legislative leaders didn't make it easy. For one thing, the commission has 45 Democratic legislators and no Republicans, a needless and counterproductive exercise in partisanship that GOP leaders have rightly criticized. Also, the commission will begin its work just two weeks before the 2010 legislative session begins in February. These are not simple issues, so it is unclear how much can be accomplished this year.
Perhaps the commission, which also will have town, union, nonprofit and business representatives, should bring in experts to study different models of metro or regional government and examine how they might work in Connecticut. Our ancient and balkanized system of 169 towns would seem to lend itself to more collaboration.
Or perhaps the state can help towns do what they have begun to do on their own. For example, Canton considered merging its police department with the larger departments in Avon and Simsbury, but was going to have trouble matching higher salary or benefit levels paid by those towns. What if the state came in with, say, a three-year grant to make up the difference?
Another tack might be to look at services performed both by the town and the state, from road maintenance to economic development, and ask if they can be combined.
There may be more interest in regional cooperation among towns than at any point in recent memory. The state Office of Policy and Management held a forum on municipal shared services Thursday at Central Connecticut State University, and it drew more than 200 town officials — and some gubernatorial candidates — from across the state.
Mr. Sharkey, a smart-growth advocate and co-chairman of the legislature's planning and development committee, is the right man to give this a try. He spearheaded regional legislation last year that he would like to build on. If ever there was a time to challenge the status quo, to put radical ideas on the table, this is it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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