Wilton is a member of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, or CCM, a non-partisan organization with membership that includes all 169 Connecticut municipalities. Although CCM says its mission is “to improve everyday life for every resident of Connecticut,” some recommendations recently drafted by the organization are raising concerns with Wilton’s Board of Selectmen about how much the group is advocating for regionalization.
Among some of the benefits provided by CCM for its member municipalities are shared best practices and research to help local leaders govern, advocating at the state level for issues affecting taxpayers, and leveraging group buying power for more cost-effective services for the communities.
More recently, a CCM sub-committee has been examining ideas for containing costs at the municipal level in an effort to achieve property tax relief. They discussed their draft recommendations in a report titled “Cost Containment Report Draft Recommendations for Discussion” at a CCM meeting on Nov. 17. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice observed the meeting and reported back to Wilton’s BOS about what was in the report during the Nov. 17 Board of Selectmen meeting.
Vanderslice launched the discussion with a comment that the report was “very interesting,” quickly noting that “there are some re-occurring themes that we have seen in the past…”–namely, regionalization.
Essentially, the recommendations call for a regionalized approach to everything from assessor functions to economic development, animal control, health and human services (employee health benefits), waste management, and, of course, education.
In fact, CCM’s report begins its shared services recommendations with the following statement:
“The State should take an aggressive approach to regionalization by creating a statewide system of effective and empowered regional Councils of Government [COGs] that:
- “will assume certain services that clearly benefit from economies of scale at a regional level
- “can serve as facilitators and coordinators of service sharing at the sub-regional level
- “are provided with the necessary resources to dramatically increase their effectiveness at a much greater scale
- “are accountable to both the State and member municipalities
- “will continue to be member-governed.”
As a basic premise, the report says, “Education spending has to be a part of any conversation about reducing the property tax burden in Connecticut.”
Vanderslice said the report received “very mixed reactions” from other CCM members.
She also pointed out that Wilton has already explored some of these same ideas; some are unlikely to yield cost savings for Wilton, while other ideas, such as shared waste management and recycling, may be more attractive.
Selectwoman Deb McFadden also alluded to the mixed bag of issues, noting that some issues, like the aging incinerators in the state, made sense to approach with other municipalities, but other issues would likely ending up “pitting the small towns against the big urban areas.”
McFadden also described some aspects of the report as “quite frightening.” She said, “Certainly… there are some good aspects but other things are no more than a stick of dynamite.”, One example she cited was changing how education is paid for.
For Selectman Joshua Cole, the recommendations were all too reminiscent of Westchester county’s structure. “Having lived in Westchester with three layers of taxing authority, [this] reminds me why I left New York.”
Indeed, the draft report was very upfront about the creation of a “middle-tier” level of government: “The intent is to create a middle-tier of government that operates similar to a county in other states, but in practice is a collective instrument of the municipalities rather than a subdivision of the State.”
Vanderslice voiced serious concerns about possible mandates. Cole agreed, saying, “I’m never a proponent of ceding control.”
Echoing the concern about losing local autonomy, Selectman Ross Tartell said, “This [report] hits the centralization [versus] local autonomy issue square on,” and that “is a little scary to me.”
The mere possibility of future mandates creates a level of uncertainty for Wilton leaders that makes planning difficult. Vanderslice said, as an example, Wilton would hesitate to build a new police dispatch center if there were reason to believe dispatch would become a regional service.
“It’s time to either do something or put this [regionalizatiion] stuff to bed. We just can’t be in this constant state of uncertainty,” she said. “I don’t know how far, or where this is going to go [but] the leadership of CCM is very much in favor of a lot of these initiatives.”
Vanderslice reiterated her concern about mandates. “It is going to be a very painful process if any of this is mandated and it moves forward.”
She believes other Fairfield County towns will also raise objections to some aspects of the recommendations.
The CCM sub-committee’s next step is to discuss the cost of the proposals.
The CCM annual meeting is on Dec 3. Vanderslice expects that will be an opportunity for municipal leaders to express their opinions on the recommendations.