Dan Haar: Just don’t call it regionalization

Fairfield First Selectman Mike Tetreau helped coordinate a unified trash collection contract for 14 towns. Easy stuff, he said, compared with the bigger nut, shared services involving town workers.

And to that end, he’s working with neighboring Westport to open a single, merged emergency communications center on the campus of Sacred Heart University. So far it’s going well, Tetreau said — but it involves negotiating with three different managements and three sets of employees — police and fire in Westport and a combined operation in Fairfield.

“We have a long way to go and the devil is in the details,” said Tetreau, a Democrat.

Now let’s imagine Fairfield, or any other Connecticut town, looking to combine whole departments — say, public works or even fire or police — with one or more surrounding towns. That’s almost impossible, not only because of the false and seductive siren of local control, but because existing rules stack up against shared municipal services.

Unions, for example, have the right to insist that each town bargaining unit negotiate merged services separately. “Each of those negotiations could take six months to a year, Tetreau said, potentially killing the idea.

Another barrier to cities and towns working together: Some municipalities have charters that spell out, for example, the fire chief reports to the first selectman. And yet another: Some towns allow a ban on shared services in collectively bargained contracts.

These sorts of barriers — along with old-style zoning rules — are starting to matter more as Connecticut works to right itself on many fronts in the quest for efficiency and economic growth. Amid a lot of lip service, a handful of sincere regional efforts and some state incentives that are badly underfunded, towns have done very little in the way of shared services and smart, cluster development.

Now would be a fine time to not only talk about it, but actually change a few state laws that get in the way. With the entire state structure in emergency surgery for paralysis and anemia, shared municipal services are part of the grand discussions of 2018 — on the campaign trail and inside the Capitol in Hartford.

When towns try to collaborate on municipal services, unions should be required, under state law, to bargain as a coalition, Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told a commission working to fix the state budget and economy on Tuesday.

“Right now, that isn’t the case,” DeLong said, “and the state won’t address that issue.”

The conference, known as CCM, also wants lawmakers to bar towns from bargaining away shared services rights; supersede town charters when shared services come together; and allow town governments to outmuscle local school boards when it comes to sharing municipal and school services within a town.

This has the potential of decaying into the sort of union-bashing that’s all too popular these days, as Republicans and even a lot of Democrats blame public employees for Connecticut’s fiscal woes. That shouldn’t be our mindset, as the state employees, for example, have taken seven of the last 11 years without raises and we’ve seen two new tiers of employees launched with lower benefits.

But yes, there’s room for more adjustment of labor rules. “If we’re going to reorganize, let’s do it,” said Lori Pelletier, president of the state AFL-CIO. “Let’s not just go after the unions.”

She’s right. If towns end up less independent, so be it. The idea that Darien and New Canaan are altogether different places is not reality; it’s part of the comfort zone of our parochial minds.

And while we’re talking about smart municipal planning, many towns still have zoning laws that thwart dense housing development around train stations — especially in Fairfield and New Haven counties, along Metro-North railroad. That’s a bugaboo of Jim Redeker, the state transportation commissioner.

Redeker told the same panel — the commission on fiscal stability and economic growth — that inflexible zoning rules are giving up a great opportunity for smart growth.

The state owns “acres and acres” of parking lots at just about every train station, Redeker said. Those could be developed to include parking as well as apartments, attracting millennials and adding to the tax rolls — but for zoning laws with large-lot requirements.

“That’s the nature of the towns we live in,” Redeker said. “Often they envision themselves as who they are and not what they might be.”

Redeker oversaw transit-oriented development in New Jersey, which, he said, is well ahead of Connecticut. And make no mistake, New Jersey is our competition.

There’s a reason beyond bumbling inertia why we’ve seen little progress. People like hyperlocal control, they like knowing the cop on the street corner and they like jawboning with the board of education member at the supermarket. All good stuff. But at what cost, as a broke and broken state foists more costs onto towns, which raise property taxes?

The savings is a matter of debate. DeLong and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, the CCM president this year, say Connecticut actually falls at No. 41 among states in the number of state and municipal employees per capita. Groups such as the Yankee Institute for Policy Studies, which decries government spending, say the savings might not amount to much.

That’s true on the margins, when we’re talking about two towns sharing one dog catcher, or maybe a health department. But if eight or ten towns combine big-ticket departments, now you could be talking about real money — and real improvement in services. That’s the view of Tetreau in Fairfield, who’s on the CCM board and chairs MetroCOG, the Bridgeport area council of governments.

For example, right now his town’s emergency communications center — where 9-1-1 calls come in — sits in the basement of a building in a flood zone.

Dare I call this move regionalization? Nope. That’s a dirty word, as we saw at the Jan. 10 Republican debate when candidates for governor climbed over each other to decry what several said was adding new levels of government.

DeLong makes the point that some school systems merge middle and high schools but keep their own elementary schools — and a structure to go with it, as in the Amity Regional District No. 5 in Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge.

The whole point of changing the laws to avoid half-measures that leave too much administration in place. Without barriers, we could see real progress.