In part one of this article, I set forth some of the Connecticut history concerning attempts to increase regional approaches to providing municipal services. I provided some examples of initiatives throughout the state, each with varying degrees of success. I pointed out that some of the best successes in regionalism have occurred on an ad hoc basis, to address a limited problem, some without a clear-cut long-term strategy in mind.
Here in Central Connecticut we have seen some significant accomplishments toward a regional approach. The formation of the Mattabassett District in the late 1960’s was a leading and pioneering example of the many benefits of regional cooperation. While experiencing the occasional and perhaps unavoidable squabble between participating towns, it has proven extremely effective. Encompassing the towns of New Britain, Berlin, Cromwell, Middletown, Newington, Rocky Hill and Farmington and guided by its current Executive Director, Arthur Simonian, it is clearly living up to its slogan of “Preserving the Environment for Future Generations to Enjoy.”
New Britain itself has demonstrated a willingness to take an intelligent and planned approach to seeking out regional services which are likely to succeed. Mayor Erin Stewart has often expressed support for inter-municipal cooperation and recognizes that a strategic commitment to regionalism must be accompanied by discrete, realistic and sometimes small efforts which are tactically well planned, presenting potential for success. Her approach is one which should be emulated by other municipalities.
One particularly significant and successful effort supported by Mayor Stewart is the all-important effort to aid the homeless by efforts such as the Building Hope Together initiative. This program coordinates with the Central Connecticut Coordinated Access Network which includes the towns of New Britain, Plainville, Bristol Southington and Berlin.
Nor have efforts in Central Connecticut been limited to municipal services. The New Britain Chamber of Commerce (ably led by Tim Stewart, the mayor’s father) works well with businesses in the surrounding towns of Berlin, Plainville and beyond.
In the final analysis, there can be little doubt that greater cooperation among municipalities and a regional approach to the provision of vital services will produce many benefits and efficiencies.
But regionalism is no panacea for all of the budget concerns facing the state and its municipalities. Nor should it be attempted solely as a stop-gap measure and “quick fix” to remedy dire fiscal situations in municipalities both large and small. Rather, it should be attempted only after the specific proposed application has been studied, found to hold promise of producing efficiencies and because it it offers a more effective form of government in today’s new social and economic realities.
Revving up the move to a greater regional approach to local services must be done only in a thoughtful and strategic fashion. Doing so can preserve the quintessential character and charm of our Connecticut cities and towns while bringing about long overdue efficiencies and savings.
Some savings which regionalism can achieve, such as bulk purchasing, are relatively noncontroversial and constitute the “low hanging fruit” of a such an approach. Once these benefits have been achieved, however, greater and greater resistance is commonly encountered when initiatives such as providing common services are discussed.
Further, it must be recognized that greater regionalism comes with some cost and risks. First and foremost is the yielding of some local control which has existed in our state for centuries. Additionally, without careful and deliberate planning, some of the cost savings and efficiencies by a regional approach might be offset by additional costs and bureaucracy of a top heavy regional structure.
Many give lip service to the concept of greater municipal regional cooperation, but when the rubber meets the road, true support is often lacking. Everyone wants greater regionalization but many do not want to give up any measure of local control. Individual ad hoc successes are laudatory but the many worthy efforts toward more effective regionalism must be brought together in a meaningful and cohesive way.
At times it seems that we are on the verge of a major breakthrough in achieving regional synergies and efficiency. But we have seen progress -- and retrenchment -in the past, with what often appears to be two steps forward and one back.
Let’s hope that another 50 years will not go by before the concept of regionalism truly takes hold.
It’s a concept that could really pay off…if it is attempted strategically….and seriously.
Harry N. Mazadoorian is a resident of Kensington. He is a commercial arbitrator and mediator and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Dispute Resolution at Quinnipiac University Law School’s Center on Dispute Resolution. He has served as Corporation Counsel for the City of New Britain and Legislative Commissioner for the State of Connecticut.