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April 4, 2016

Municipal officials get dire warning to regionalize

PHOTO | J. Fiereck Photography House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said cities and towns must collaborate to reduce expenses, or face reduced state funding.
PHOTO | J. Fiereck Photography Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin says regionalization will be key to helping solve the Capital City’s budget crisis.
PHOTO | J. Fiereck Photography Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, discussed ways towns and cities are saving money.

Connecticut's fiscal crisis lends urgency to the need for cities, towns and boards of education to collaborate on more efficient ways to operate, state and local officials recently emphasized in sometimes-blunt terms, warning that if changes aren't made more quickly, local funding will be at risk, putting further pressures on municipal budgets.

“I don't believe that there is any way to really resolve the fundamental challenges we have without regionalizing,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin recently told lawmakers and fellow leaders at Hartford Business Journal's third annual Municipal Collaboration Summit held recently at the Hartford Hilton. “I don't think we have enough time to play the same incremental game that we've played for a long time.”

Leaders don't have the luxury to pick places for small symbolic wins, Bronin said, urging municipal leaders to generate the will to regionalize more quickly.

“If we're really going to do this and we're going to turn this state into an economic powerhouse that is competing and winning jobs, not losing them, I think we have to fundamentally rethink how we do business at the municipal level,” Bronin said.

Drastic fiscal backdrop

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) provided the drastic fiscal backdrop to the conference, noting a tepid revenue-growth forecast for the state of about 2 percent a year. That isn't projected to improve as lower-paying jobs generating less tax revenue continue to replace high-paying ones lost in the recession. The fallout has been budget deficits estimated at $220 million in the current fiscal year – which lawmakers voted to close last week – $900 million next fiscal year, and $1 billion-plus in subsequent years.

The fiscal realities underscore the need for regional efficiencies in municipal governments and school districts, which are facing cuts after largely being held harmless since the recession, he said.

“Maybe we should tie the giving of a state grant to an efficiency that the locals need to achieve … and if you do it, you get your grant, if you don't, you don't – that's the kind of thinking that we are adopting right now,” Sharkey said.

Public safety answering points (PSAPs), which receive emergency calls and dispatch emergency services, are a clear target for savings, Sharkey said, calling them “the lowest of low-hanging fruit” for municipal collaboration.

The state has 107 PSAPs, according to Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston and a population exceeding Connecticut, has one, Wray said, asking attendees to guess which jurisdiction paid more for its services.

Sharkey said police chiefs oppose a bill to shrink subsidies to the call centers and criticized their stance.

“I love police chiefs … but they've got their head in the sand and they don't get it,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey said PSAPs are in his “crosshairs,” but they're not alone among inefficiencies.

Some regionalization success

Despite the need to improve regionalization, successes are happening, several conference speakers noted.

Connecticut has laid a foundation for efficiencies, including: Establishing the Regional Performance Incentive Program, which is a capital source for towns and regions to collaborate; establishing the Nutmeg Network, which brought high-speed Internet fiber connectivity to towns, giving them the opportunity to share resources and software and collaborate in other ways to achieve savings; and eradicating outdated statutes that prevented towns and cities and boards of education from collaborating, Sharkey said.

John Elsesser, president of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns and town manager in Coventry, cited myriad examples of things his town is doing to save money.

They include sharing a dog pound by buying services from Vernon; sharing IT services with its board of education and entering contracts with South Windsor and Tolland for other IT services; buying software for land records with four towns; and being among five towns and boards of education that created a health insurance pool that has kept premiums steady for two years.

“We're not telling the story well,” Elsesser said. “A lot of towns are doing a lot of things. There's more to do. …”

Wray cited regionalization examples that include dive teams for water rescues, bomb squads, disaster planning and services, and cooperative purchasing agreements among many towns to save money.

Those are “invisible success stories” people don't hear about, he said. But inefficiencies in towns also are invisible, Wray added.

“I think we need to make the costs of going alone … more visible,” he said. Technology offers opportunities for costs savings, particularly for back-office expenses, he added.

Insurance savings

Mary Glassman, manager of the office for regional efficiencies at the Capitol Region Education Council, urged town representatives to examine whether their town is buying insurance separately from their local board of education.

“If you are, you're wasting money,” she said.

CREC, for example, is looking to host a collaborative medical stop-loss insurance program that it predicts will save 16 communities $2 million in the first year alone, “so we have tremendous opportunity given the state's economic crisis to think differently, act differently and use our resources to buy what we really want to buy,” Glassman said.

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