Change Could Help Regions Compete for Federal Dollars

HARTFORD — A new proposal by the State of Connecticut and the U.S. Census Bureau would adopt Connecticut’s nine planning regions as “county-equivalent” geographical units used for tabulating census data. If approved, the change will increase eligibility for federal grants in the nine regions, which are represented by the Regional Council of Governments (COGs) made up of member municipalities.

Many federal grants are designed for and around counties, making cities and towns in Connecticut ineligible. If the state’s planning regions are made equivalent to counties, then municipalities can join together through their COGs and submit for federal grants, said Sam Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, known as River COG. Gold is also the chair of the Connecticut Association of Councils of Government. 

“We do things differently in New England. We have a very strong history going back 400 years of home rule and we respect that. But what happened in 1960, was the Connecticut county governments were abolished and there was no ‘forwarding address’ given to the federal government,” said Gold. 

Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, or WestCOG, said equating the state’s planning regions to counties will require an addition to the agency’s terminology, but will not involve a statutory change. 

“It could be considered a regulatory change, but really what it is is more kind of an industry kind of change to their definition of geographic units,” Pickering said. “The Census Bureau has a list of geographic units that they consider to be equivalent to counties and those are parishes independent cities and organized boroughs, and they will simply add ‘Council of Governments.’”

He said the goal is not to compete against the state or its cities and towns for funding.

“Our goal is to simply allow the state of Connecticut to get more money overall, bring in new federal money,” said Pickering. “The reason that’s important is because Connecticut is really bad at getting federal money.”

The aggregate statistics show Connecticut is last in the country per capita in terms of balance of payments with the federal government, leaving millions and perhaps billions of dollars on the table, he said. 

“It will let us apply for grants, which we currently can’t do, on a more competitive basis by pulling multiple talents together into a larger region application,” he said. 

Connecticut is at a disadvantage when competing for grants against states like Texas, he said. 

“They have several very large cities of national importance — Houston, Dallas Fort Worth, San Antonio, for instance, and they have 254 county governments. So, if they’re applying for grants, it’s really hard for a small town in Connecticut to compete with Texas or Houston or a Texas county. All of our towns and cities are small by national standards and we just don’t have the resources to put together competitive grant applications, because we’re small,” he said. 

The proposal does not revive county government in Connecticut nor change the relationship of municipalities with their COGs and state and federal governments. The eight counties in the state will retain their historic names. 

Melissa McCaw, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, initiated the request to the Census Bureau on behalf of the nine COGs. She said the change “will only affect the reporting of Census data and products and will not have any significant impact on the operations or functions of state and local government.” 

“Furthermore, cities and towns share many of the same challenges when it comes to the efficient and cost-effective procurement of goods and services, so mayors and first selectmen, acting through their respective COG, will benefit from this change, which I believe is both appropriate and complementary to Connecticut’s strong Home Rule tradition,” McCaw said in a release.

The proposal will go into effect in 2023 and will not change the 2020 Census data. Beginning in 2023, Census data sets will align with planning regions instead of counties. 

“What this is about is data. The U.S. Census Bureau creates a wealth of data that we use on the town level, on the state level, on the regional level. And, because we don’t have county governments, we have all this data being created along geographies that are meaningless to us,” said Gold. 

The proposal will give the COGs greater standing with state and federal legislatures and could provide a vehicle for launching regional shared services, he said. 

“I think, on a very basic level, it raises the profile of the COGs, which in the long term is a good thing — especially when we’ve had administrations and legislators who have articulated a vision of there being more regional shared services between towns and using the COGs, either to help realize those services, provide the services or assist with the setting up those services,” said Gold.

The Federal Register 60-day comment period for the proposal will run from Dec. 14, 2020 to Feb. 12, 2021. Public comment can be submitted here.

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