In a discussion a few years ago about more regional activity in Greater Hartford, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka raised an important question: "Who will do the work?"
His point is well taken. If Greater Hartford is to become a metropolitan region and engage in more sharing of services and other regional initiatives, someone — a trained staff person — will have to research, coordinate, direct and administer each project or program. Most town governments are down to the bone and don't have extra people.
At the same time, there is no appetite for creating a new layer of county government; the idea of regional collaboration is to save money through greater efficiency and economies of scale.
What does that leave? The reflexive answer in Greater Hartford is the Capitol Region Council of Governments, a voluntary organization of 29 towns in the Hartford area.
CRCOG, or "crog," as it is widely known, has initiated and coordinated numerous regional programs, such as a regional purchasing council and the CAPTAIN Mobile Data Communication System, which links 80 police organizations to local, state and national criminal information files.
But CRCOG, too, is stretched thin. The agency has 20 employees, most of whom work in either transportation or public safety, those areas being where the funding and planning mandates are. The agency has taken on the task of creating a new regional solid-waste authority, among other projects.
So how much more CRCOG can do in its current configuration is open to question. The challenge is to create more regional capacity without breaking the bank. Here are some ideas:
1. Create a bigger CRCOG. The state is divided into 15 planning regions, which are organized as regional councils of elected officials, regional councils of government or regional planning agencies. Some are tiny; one comprises four small towns in the Naugatuck Valley, while two others have six and seven towns, respectively. This is too many; California has 17 planning regions.
Reduce the number of planning regions in Connecticut to, say, five, and merge a couple of the smaller ones into CRCOG, and it should have more staff capacity.
2. Merge with another regional entity. If CRCOG merged with, say, the Metropolitan District Commission, the eight-town water and sewer authority that has a municipal charter, the result would be a strong, multifaceted regional agency.
3. Create a policy institute. Earlier this year, former East Granby First Selectman David Kilbon and former Hartford chief administrative officer Lee C. Erdmann proposed the creation of a public policy center that would focus on regional and state issues. Mr. Kilbon and Mr. Erdman have gained support for the proposal and appear to be on the way to establishing the center, probably at a college or university. It would focus on nonpartisan research, consulting, brokering or coordinating projects and training public-sector workers. This idea has great potential.
4. Use the Web. CRCOG is rolling out a pilot program in eight towns that will allow residents to apply for building permits and track their progress online. There are some other Web-based services in the pipeline. Expansion of these kinds of services ought to increase regional efficiency.
5. Get the state more involved. The state can provide incentives and technical assistance for regional activity; indeed, it has begun to do so. The state Office of Policy and Management will hold a daylong conference on Jan. 14 at Central Connecticut State University on the mechanics of regional service delivery. The conference will cover everything from public safety and financial services to emergency communication, equipment sharing and animal control.
"It's best practices — how to do it," said OPM undersecretary W. David LeVasseur.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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