Can CT towns work together? Lamont envisions more sharing

Connecticut has eight counties but no county governments. That leaves local leaders in the state’s 169 towns — over half of which are home to fewer than 13,000 residents — to manage all local services, from zoning enforcement to tax collection, animal control, voting registration and fair housing.

Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed legislation intended to enable more regional collaboration, helping town leaders work together and save money by sharing services.

In written testimony submitted to the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee, Lamont said the bill, H.B. 5056, “is a step in the right direction for regional collaboration by allowing municipalities the option to work with other towns.”

The legislation would achieve that by revoking any local town or city charter provisions that currently prohibit or limit shared services agreements. It also calls for local unions to form “coalition bargaining units” to negotiate service agreements across multiple towns.

With the intention of facilitating regional labor agreements, the bill states labor contracts cannot contain language prohibiting such agreements. That is one of the main stumbling blocks for towns that want to collaborate, according to advocates who favor the legislation.

“In the effort to bargain for wages and benefits and working conditions, we’ve also bargained away the ability to assign work across town lines, which has precluded service sharing arrangements, in some cases, from taking place,” Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told lawmakers during a public hearing Wednesday, March 13.

DeLong said the bill seeks to clarify “that we can’t bargain away the ability to help our neighbor.”

Eric Chester, a lawyer whose firm represents teachers and municipal employee bargaining units around the state, took issue with phrasing in the bill that he read as potentially undermining the ability of union coalitions to negotiate at all.

“We’re looking to maintain that their rights are preserved — that they have a right in negotiating over their working conditions, and that an interlocal agreement does not usurp those rights and does not usurp any existing collective bargaining agreement that already governs their wages, hours and working conditions,” Chester said.

Planning and Development co-chair state Rep. Eleni Kavros-DeGraw, D-Avon, said the language in the bill was still a work in progress. “There are ongoing discussions with labor and the governor’s office,” she said.

State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, raised questions about the bill repealing town charter provisions prohibiting shared service agreements.

“It was characterized that this will give municipalities greater ability and discretion and ease to share services, and I think most of us would share that goal. I’m concerned…however, that it’s more prescriptive than that,” Fazio said.

“I don’t think the intention was to be prescriptive. The intention is to be enabling,” Rebecca Augur, testifying on behalf of the state Office of Policy and Management, said. “It was to enable municipalities to voluntarily enter into these regional shared services despite any charter provisions currently restricting them, or ordinances and so on.”

Fazio wasn’t entirely convinced. “Maybe that’s something we can work on as the bill goes forward,” he said.

Leaders from Connecticut’s regional Councils of Government said that while several municipalities around the state have forged service sharing agreements — often with coordination by the respective COG — obstacles remain. For example, many town charters require that certain public positions be appointed by the town’s mayor or first selectman, said Matthew Fulda, executive director of the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

And many of those positions are ones that “require additional licensing — like building officials, health officials and those types of positions — that are becoming harder and harder to fill as we have less and less licensed officials to do that work,” Fulda said. They’re precisely the positions that would be most helpful to share with neighboring towns, he said.

Collective bargaining agreements also limit the positions towns can share, said Matt Hart, executive director of the Capitol Region COG. “Hypothetically, towns at present can share any service,” Hart said. “However, the vast majority of what occurs right now is with positions that are held by non-union employees.”

Hart said that’s why the bill’s provisions on coalition bargaining are important, and he urged stronger language “to require collective bargaining units to form coalition bargaining units, as opposed to keeping it discretionary.”

“That way,” he said, “the legislative bodies for the participating towns are in the driver’s seat, as they should be.”

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