Law may help SCCOG with funding and expansion

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, already the second largest agency of its kind in the state, could get additional funding and possibly even expand following a new law that encourages regionalization and larger planning organizations.

The new provisions could change planning regions in the state within the next two years.

The law calls for the state to study and revise regional boundaries and also offers incentives for consolidation into larger councils of governments.

In response to this push for regionalization, some eastern Connecticut regional planning organizations are proactively beginning to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of voluntarily merging in full or part.

Representing 20 municipalities, SCCOG would likely remain the same, but it could even add a few towns. However, SCCOG representatives advised against expanding the COG too much so that it becomes less efficient. And, on the other hand, SCCOG member towns could also elect to join other planning organizations.

After receiving invitations last month, SCCOG's executive committee met with the Windham Region Council of Governments. SCCOG representatives also met with the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, which wanted to explore options with WINCOG and specifically the SCCOG towns of Voluntown, Griswold, Lisbon, Sprague and Franklin.

SCCOG Chairman Paul Formica said the meetings included a discussion on the most efficient number of members in a council of governments that would enable leaders to put the municipalities' best interests forward. The COGs learned about each other, outlining their histories and common interests, he said, and explored whether it would be beneficial to make a decision.

Formica, who is also the first selectman of East Lyme, added that the councils consist of elected officials representing their municipalities' best interests and the COGs' boundaries "don't and haven't precluded us from working together on regional projects."

SCCOG is financially sound and has a reputation built on more than 50 years of regional planning, said SCCOG Executive Director James Butler.

Under H.B. 6706, the state would reconfigure all regional agencies into councils of governments to provide regional services. Councils of governments are currently one of three planning options along with regional planning agencies or councils of elected officials.

The law would also offer a boost to the about $13,300 SCCOG received from the Office of Policy and Management this year, though that amount is less than SCCOG received about a decade ago. The planning agencies will receive $125,000 in fiscal year 2014. In 2015, COGs will receive that amount and an additional 50 cents per person from a regional planning incentive account.

The extra funding could potentially enable SCCOG to perform more regional planning items and find even more ways for the municipalities to collaborate and realize cost efficiencies in the future, explained Butler.

How to allocate the proposed funds, when received, will be the subject of future conversations with leadership, he said.

The discussions will cover all aspects of planned funding or required responsibilities, such as any additional transportation planning, said Formica. While no decisions have been made, the topic of potential mergers will also likely be a standing agenda item, he said.

In other parts of the state, the Litchfield Hills Council of Elected Officials and the Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments recently approved merging, according to Butler.

k.drelich@theday.com

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