Local officials want a say in merger of planning agencies

Norwich - Sixteen area town officials gathered for two hours Thursday at the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments office to discuss various state proposals to consolidate the number of regional planning agencies.

The group held a conference call with David LeVasseur, acting undersecretary at the state Office of Policy and Management, and asked for a chance to make the changes themselves wherever possible.

LeVasseur outlined two apparently contradictory bills being considered by the state legislature and said OPM had been asked to conduct its own study on creating new regional boundaries for the planning groups. That study is due to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2012.

There are currently 15 regional planning agencies, three of which were represented at Thursday's meeting.

Municipal officials said Thursday they felt the entire process was speeding along without their input. Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon, who chaired the meeting, agreed that consolidation was unavoidable but said the three regions needed to present their argument that the towns themselves know best what system would work for them.

Congdon pushed the group to lobby for input into whatever state law or administrative consolidation directive comes from OPM. The three planning agencies will send representatives to a legislative forum on regionalization on April 18 in Hartford.

Though the Planning and Development Committee forum is not a public hearing, the members will ask for a chance to speak.

Chairmen of the three COGs will also separately send letters to legislative leaders asking for the rationale behind proposed consolidations and what problems the moves would solve. That way, North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II said, the towns could offer their own solutions to those problems.

Meanwhile, the 17-town Connecticut River Valley Council of Elected Officials voted at its March 23 meeting to send a letter to the state reaffirming its interest in merging the nine-town Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency with the eight-town Midstate Regional Planning Agency.

Linda Krause, CRERPA's executive director, said the Council of Elected Officials is hoping to take advantage of funds in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget that would provide monetary incentives for regional planning agencies that voluntarily consolidate.

"They are concerned that if the state were broken up into smaller numbers of larger regions, that some of the sense of character that they have would be basically torn apart," Krause said of the town officials. "The river is a uniting factor, and it would be really sad to break up the sense that there is around the river."

The current 15 regions were established about 50 years ago, OPM's LeVasseur said, with criteria that made sense at the time - local phone regions, hospital service areas and even newspaper subscriptions. But today, many of those conditions have changed and now overlap, and LeVasseur said his agency is struggling to find new relevant criteria for the consolidations.

At the same time, the legislature is considering two bills that would affect the regional planning agencies. One would reduce the number of districts from 15 to eight, while a second bill would establish six service regions for all state agencies.

Town officials at Thursday's meeting were divided on how the regions should respond to the proposals. Coventry Town Manager John Elsesser suggested the three regions consider establishing one governing entity while retaining their individual "service districts" which already provide valuable regionalized services in the three regions.

Pomfret First Selectman Mark Paquette said the regions should make a case that their current arrangements work and are financially efficient.

Paquette said he gladly pays for town engineering and regional animal control services through the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, and said it would make no sense for him to receive similar services from the southeastern counterpart, based in Norwich.

c.bessette@theday.com

Day staff writer Jenna Cho contributed to this report.

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