Over the past several years the whisper of regionalization has grown to a shout. The line is that the state will not require, but suggest, ways for towns to regionalize services. That is a sugar coating. The real intention is exposed later in the recent Courant editorial with the suggestion that "the legislature should authorize a major study to determine as quickly as possible if core services can be less expensively and more efficiently delivered on a regional basis."
Once a "study" is completed and areas are identified, the state will begin the pressure to combine services and assert influence. As with its pressure to form health districts, it offers financial incentives to bring the cost down in the short term, then piles on mandated services. The short-term incentives expire, leaving towns with excessive costs. Chester currently spends about $25,000 on health services, and we do a nice job of it. The regional approach to health services advocated by the state would have cost Chester $42,000, or 68 percent more and moved the office of the sanitarian out of town.
If you think I am being overly cynical, consider this: Speaking at the Connecticut Organization of Small Towns conference last spring, Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams alluded to the need to explore not only regionalization of services but also regional revenue-sharing. Set aside the fact that the state tax structure IS regional revenue-sharing (for every dollar Chester sends to the state, the town gets 13 cents back. For every dollar Hartford sends, it gets $1.54 back). Imagine adding a layer of tax for "regional services" in addition to our oppressive sales, income and property tax structure.
As the editorial stated, many towns have already regionalized some services. Chester, for example, participates in regional household hazardous waste collection and regional emergency communications. We share transfer station services; we even share a street sweeper. All of these "regional" activities have been identified and agreed upon by the towns involved. We see the need locally and we keep the control locally.
Once the door is pushed open on regionalization, we will be seeing regional housing authorities, regional zoning boards and regional finance boards. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published "Democracy in America," an account of his nine-month trip across the United States. In his book, de Tocqueville writes: "The Township of New England possesses two advantages, which strongly excite the interest of mankind, namely, independence and authority. Its sphere is limited, indeed; but within that sphere, its action is unrestrained. This independence alone gives it a real importance, which its extent and population would not insure."
Amazingly, the pure democracy that de Tocqueville was surprised to find thriving in New England 175 years ago still exists today in many of Connecticut's small towns. Our independence is a precious treasure. Our pure form of democracy is to be protected, not diluted. If the state is truly concerned about the tax burden of its residents, it needs to focus on becoming more efficient and less intrusive.
Perhaps putting the state budget to public vote as we do at our annual town meeting would be all it takes. I have a feeling things would change rather quickly.
Thomas E. Marsh is the first selectman of Chester.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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