After a long ordeal with the COVID-19 pandemic, regionalization is once again a topic of debate in the General Assembly. During this short legislative session, the promises and concerns of a centralized system at the local level, particularly around health care, housing and education policies, created distinct camps of support and condemnation. Local self-government, or local authority, in our municipalities remains an essential part of Connecticut politics. But there are some policy areas where regionalization can serve as a model of compromise.
Because we abolished county government over sixty years ago, we do not experience a level of government between our strong local governments (169 municipalities) and a centralized state government. In fact, Connecticut had a weak county government prior to its dissolution. Connecticut was a series of colonies, theocracies, and Native American nations before becoming a united and real “state” in the modern sense. It was parochial and committed to direct democracy. State government was difficult to conceptualize and county government was abstract for many to understand in the 20th century. Even in modern times we hardly identify with a region but tend to identify more with a municipality, neighborhood or hamlet.
Massachusetts may be the origin of public schools, but Connecticut’s Constitution states that public schools should be free and equal. Yet concerns persist today about their equality between urban, suburban and rural municipalities — which run nearly all of the state’s school districts. Our state’s Supreme Court may have recently benefited from an agreement in Sheff v. O’Neill, but our General Assembly has chosen not to vote this month. Equitable funding for our public schools will remain an issue.
Like public education, economic development is largely a local issue. Municipal planning and zoning councils decide on development approaches in their localities. It’s rare to find pathways to work in different Connecticut municipalities, even when it comes to smart growth or planning for future economic development. Urban redevelopment and suburban sprawl remain regional issues in the hands of local elected officials. It is up to state officials to introduce regional initiatives at the state level. HB 5429 advances transit-oriented development (TOD) where future housing and retail growth would be centered around transit hubs.
Unlike most states that set up local public health departments at the county level, Connecticut has a patchwork of part-time, full-time, and regional health departments. The state Department of Public Health has pushed municipalities to go the district route to reduce the number of health departments in the state, which in February stood at sixty-four (including the two tribal nations federally recognized). Chapter 368f of Title 19a of the General Bylaws establishes the regulations and requirements of a health district. It creates a district administration board, appoints representatives from the district municipalities who oversee things like budgetary matters, including approving the per capita rate that cities must pay, and reviews the performance of the health director. every three years. Despite the district’s virtual independence over its overall organization and functions, individual municipalities have a say in the district through their council appointments.
As has been evident during the pandemic, many municipalities have relied on Connecticut’s regional district health departments for guidance and vaccine distribution. Connecticut’s local health departments have been key players in responding to the impact of the virus on communities. Some towns, such as Killingworth and Easton, ran their own municipal health services until the pandemic, then opted to join regional health districts to better serve residents and gain access to more public health services.
The regional approach to public health in Connecticut is not new, and the pandemic has highlighted the many benefits it can offer municipalities that want to improve the health of their residents and streamline services. Regional districts can offer more essential public health services such as infectious disease epidemiology, emergency preparedness, public health nursing, and stronger food safety and septic tank treatment programs . As the state seeks reforms and opportunities to provide stronger services at the regional level, the local health district model can be a guiding model.
If regionalized health approaches can be a guide, perhaps there is scope for other policy areas, including public education and economic development. Connecticut has stood for hundreds of years as a colony and a state, but we remain fractured due to self-reliance and little regionalization. Shared governance can be a start in some policy areas, especially if we understand our government and its origins.