After a long ordeal with the COVID-19 pandemic, regionalization is again a topic of debate at the General Assembly. In this short legislative session, the promises and concerns of a centralized system at the local level, particularly around health care, housing, and education policies, have created distinct camps of support and condemnation. Home rule, or local authority, in our municipalities remains a staple of Connecticut politics. But there are certain policy areas where regionalization may serve as a blueprint for compromise.
Because we did away with county government over sixty years ago, we’re not familiar with a level of government between our strong local governments (169 municipalities) and a centralized state government. In fact, Connecticut had a weak county government before it was dissolved. Connecticut was a series of colonies, theocracies and Native American nations before it became a united and actual “state” in the modern sense. It was parochial and engaged in direct democracy. State government was a stretch to conceptualize and county government was abstract for many to understand into the 20th century. Even in modern times, we hardly relate to a region but tend to identify more with a municipality, neighborhood or hamlet.
Massachusetts might have originated public schools, but Connecticut’s Constitution states that public schools shall be free and equal. Still, concerns linger today about how equal they are among urban, suburban and rural municipalities – which operate almost all of the state’s school districts. Our state Supreme Court may have recently leveraged an agreement in Sheff v. O’Neill, but our General Assembly chose not to vote on it this month. Equitable financing for our public schools will remain an issue.
Similar to public school education, economic development is largely a local issue. Municipal planning and zoning boards decide development approaches in their locales. Finding pathways to work among various municipalities in Connecticut is rare, even when it comes to smart growth or future economic development planning. Urban redevelopment and suburban sprawl remain regional issues in the hands of local officials. It’s up to state officials to introduce regional initiatives at the state level. HB 5429 advances transit-oriented development (TOD) where future housing and commercial growth would center around public transit hubs.
Unlike most states that set up local public health services on a county level, Connecticut has a patchwork of part-time, full-time and regional departments of health. There has been a push by the state Department of Public Health for municipalities to go the district route to reduce the number of health departments in the state, which as of February stood at sixty-four (including the two federally recognized tribal nations). Chapter 368f of Title 19a in the General Statutes establishes the regulations and requirements of a health district. It creates a district Board of Directors, appointed representatives from the municipalities within the district who have oversight of items such as budgetary matters including approval of the per capita rate towns must pay and reviews the Director of Health’s performance every three years. Despite the quasi-independence the district has over its overall organization and functions, individual municipalities have input over the district through their board appointments.
As evident during the pandemic, many municipalities relied on regional district departments of health in Connecticut for guidance and vaccine distribution. Local health departments in Connecticut have been key stakeholders in responding to the virus’ impact on communities. Some towns, such as Killingworth and Easton, operated their own municipal health departments until the pandemic, then opted to join regional health districts to better serve residents and have 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 who wish to better 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 programs. As the state seeks reforms and opportunities to provide stronger services on a regional level, the local health district model can be a model of guidance.
If regionalized health approaches can be a guide, maybe there’s a possibility for other policy areas including public education and economic development. Connecticut has withstood hundreds of years as a colony and state, but we remain fractured because of home rule and little regionalization. Shared governance can be a start in some policy areas, especially if we understand our government and its origins.