Regional Planners Seek Federal Recognition as Connecticut’s County Government Equivalent

Connecticut’s regional councils of government are seeking to be federally recognized as the state’s equivalent of county government in an effort to make better use of federal data, be more competitive for certain federal grants, and streamline application processes.

Sam Gold, chair of the Connecticut Association of Councils of Government, said that county lines in Connecticut are a “historical relic” of the 18th and 19th centuries. County governments in Connecticut were abolished by the state legislature in 1960. 

Many of the roles filled by county governments in other states are covered instead by nine councils of government (COGs), which are regional planning agencies that answer to a board made up of member towns’ chief executive officers.

“There’s a number of different federal calculations and tabulation for data that are not very useful in Connecticut,” said Gold, who is also executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG). “For example, the U.S. Department of Commerce creates county business patterns — a snapshot of local economies based on a county level.”

RiverCOG’s member town borders roughly align with Middlesex County, in addition to  Old Lyme and Lyme in New London County, but other COGs are not so closely aligned with any particular county. 

Gold said that the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments has towns in four counties, doesn’t cover the majority of any county, and doesn’t have any county’s single biggest city.

“The [federal government’s] county data was useless for understanding the local economy in that region,” Gold said.

Gold said that Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management is working with federal officials in hopes of phasing in that federal recognition of the COGs in 2021, which would likely not require a change in Connecticut state statute.

“It doesn’t change how anything is delivered in Connecticut, but it could allow the towns to work together through their COGs in Connecticut more than they do today and potentially save towns time and money,” Gold said. 

“In many places various federal plans for applications are done at a county level on behalf of all the municipalities in the county. Here, because, there’s no county government to do things on behalf of cities and towns, everything has to be done on the town level.”

As an example, Gold pointed to the federal Community Rating System, which gives flood insurance breaks to municipalities that submit applications detailing steps they’ve taken to reduce their risk of flood damage.

Not all towns submit the proper paperwork because it may not be worthwhile for them to do it as a town, but if the COG could submit paperwork on behalf of all the towns, more would stand to benefit, he said.

On a separate but related issue, Gold said that the U.S. Census Bureau is also considering a special tabulation on the 2020 census that would allow for the demographic data to be split up along COG borders rather than county borders.

“That way we would have demographic and census data for our COGs, which would be more useful for a number of different services and projects than would the historical county government lines,” Gold said, “because there are no services provided on a county level.”

As for the federal recognition as county governments, Gold said that the plan would be to test out the program over the next 10 years, with the idea that the 2030 census would be conducted along the COG borders rather than those of the counties.

“Everyone has approached this with a slow deliberate pace to make sure we’re not going to find out that we messed something up for some program somewhere,” Gold said.

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