IN THE REGION — For the first time in three years, the funding set aside for Connecticut’s Councils of Government is in the budget legislation, guaranteeing $4.1 million to the nine regional planning agencies for the next two years.
“Previously our funding has been a line item in the Office of Policy and Management’s budget. Now it is in legislation,” said James Butler, the executive director for the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government (SECCOG). “It will be harder to zero it out or eliminate it now that it is in legislation.”
In fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019 the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) service grant had been cut to far less than what the state originally budgeted.
“In 2017/2018 we didn’t get money until seven months into the year, and what we got was cut by 60 percent,” said Sam Gold, the executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Council of Government (RiverCOG). In 2018 the funding was even less, with just $1.7 million distributed between the nine COGs. In 2019, the COGs were promised $7 million and received $3.6 million.
With such reductions in funding, many COGs had to change priorities, cut projects or rely on reserves to continue work.
“To learn two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through a fiscal year that you will not be receiving funding causes a regional agency like ours to scramble,” Butler said. “It gave me a lot more gray hair, but I have plenty to begin with at my age.”
SECCOG is fortunate to have a healthy reserve fund, Butler said, so was able to continue with business as usual throughout the times of uncertain funding. SECCOG did not need to lay off any of its eight employees and continued work on several projects including a joint land use study around the naval submarine base funded by the United States Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment.
For other COGs, like RiverCOG, things were not as easy. Projects like the Regional Plan of Conservation and Development (RPCD) is now over a year late due to a perfect storm of reduced funding and staffing problems.
“The grant that pays for the regional plan of conservation and development is the least predictable part of my budget,” Gold said. “If there is no money to bill against we can’t charge, so we can’t do the project.”
Although each COG is supposed to publish a RPCD every ten years, there is no penalty from the state for not doing so. Therefore, Gold is waiting for restored, reliable funding before he hires a new employee or contractor to complete the project.
Gold has managed the funding deficit by working on federally-funded transportation projects including corridor studies between the Clinton train station and high school, and between Portland and East Hampton. As a funding strategy, Gold has also adopted a local regional services model.
“We started using a strategy of filling in our people in the towns we serve,” Gold said. “That way we are able to bill the towns for their work.”
That program is continuing on-demand, but Gold said he would like it to expand going forward given that many of RiverCOG’s 17 municipalities do not require full-time planning and zoning staff.
The uncertainty of funding has had its costs, however. Especially for COGs that do not already own their own buildings as SECCOG does.
“There is an opportunity cost to unpredictable funding streams,” Gold said. RiverCOG was unable to buy an office space due to the missed fourth-quarter payment in 2018. Today, they continue to rent an office space in Essex, adding a cost to their budget that may not have otherwise been there.
All stress again and again the importance of taking a conservative approach to planning a budget, even in a year when the funding is directly in the budget legislation.
“A signed contract means nothing, but it’s a different administration,” Gold said. “And thus far our interactions have been very positive.”
All seem more energized and hopeful that their projects and plans will be funded under Governor Ned Lamont’s administration.
“Every other word out of his mouth is regionalism,” Butler said. “That really speaks well for the COGs because of our missions of getting towns working together.”