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New approach to Census count makes sense for Connecticut

The headline on the press release from the state's Office of Policy and Management is arresting: "Connecticut planning regions proposed to become county equivalents."

Whoa.

Reasoning that a state so small did not need to spend taxpayer dollars on a layer of government between municipalities and the state, Connecticut virtually did away with any vestige of county government when it changed the status of sheriffs to judicial marshals in 2000. The court system remains organized along county lines, but not much else.

Under the new proposal, which originated with Connecticut's OPM, the state's nine planning regions would serve as the equivalent of counties for purposes of collecting, tabulating and disseminating Census data. While the proposal applies only to the Census, it continues to elevate the effectiveness of the nine councils of government, which each represent a geographic planning region. And it could mean more federal dollars for specific areas.

Each COG consists of the mayors and first selectmen of the municipalities in its designated region. The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments has operated since 1992, and now includes 22 towns, cities and boroughs. Municipal chief executives meet regularly to guide regional planning and services, as well as public transportation. They administer their towns separately, as they are elected to do, but COG gives them a view toward benefiting the region as a whole.

Counties never did much for Connecticut in the first place, given the near autonomy of towns and cities under the Home Rule system. Fourth-graders who may have learned the names of the eight counties — for the record, Litchfield, Hartford, Tolland, Windham, Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex and New London — had few prompts for remembering them after the first quiz. There would be scant reasons for subsequent textbooks to mention them.

Every 10 years, however, Connecticut notices that counties would come in handy for counting. The Census, which counts not only people but types of jobs, wage levels, population density and thousands of other statistics, goes with the flow nationally, which means comparing those numbers at the county level. Almost all states outside of New England rely heavily on county government for education, policing, social services and other activities that in Connecticut are divided between towns and the state.

The Census Bureau is holding a 60-day public commenting period on the proposal that ends Feb. 12, 2021. The idea is an excellent one and should get the support of the public and the hard-pressed municipalities that would benefit from it.

Connecticut's regional COGs represent communities with mutual interests. They have statutory authority to apply for state grants, and one of the most promising features of the proposal is that they would gain the right to apply for federal grants that in other states are available to counties. Given the often-cited economics of Connecticut sending more dollars to Washington than it gets back, that would be most welcome.

The proposal, if approved, also makes sense in acknowledging the many roles the COGs inherently perform as part of their planning mission. Their work is often invisible to the public although well known to member towns and state officials. For example, the staff at the Southeastern council has been working since June with the neighboring Northeastern council, state emergency planners and homeland security officials to coordinate the region's long-term recovery from the pandemic with health care providers, towns, non-profits, businesses and faith-based organizations.

Counties serve larger states well, but one size does not fit all. The structure of Connecticut's planning regions may have been conceived to calm the fears of towns that they could lose autonomy to an intermediate layer of government. The councils of government are not set up to govern, nor to levy or collect taxes. They pose no threat to Home Rule, and by now, that should be widely understood. What will make them even more valuable is to become contenders for funds that towns can use and Connecticut's historic counties were in no shape to compete for.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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