Planning agency tagged for merger

Over the last 14 years, the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency (CCRPA), which started with five staff members and has grown to 14, has brought $50 million to the seven towns it covers.
“In the last 14 years (while the agency has grown)… we have not increased our dues (for municipalities to belong) by one penny,” said CCRPA’s Executive Director Carl Stephani. CCRPA covers Berlin, Bristol, Burlington, New Britain, Plainville, Plymouth, and Southington.
By December of next year, if a recently passed bill holds true, the CCRPA will no longer be, due to some recent legislation that is requiring the state’s Office of Policy Management (OPM) to merge the regional planning agencies, forcing the 14 agencies to merge with one of the eight Councils of Government.
Stephani said at the beginning of this year, the state’s Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies (M.O.R.E) Commission began discussing the possibility of condensing these agencies.
“I was under the impression that our findings would be addressed in the fall,” said Stephani. As of now, he said, that did not happen.
Stephani said, and suspects others were as well, was caught off-guard when he saw a bill included in this fiscal year’s budget that mandated the OPM to come up with new “boundaries of logical planning regions.” The bill originated through the state’s Planning and Development Committee.
“I thought this was a work in progress,” Stephani said, adding OPM came up with a preliminary recommendation for new regions on Oct. 1. Under this preliminary recommendation, OPM put CCRPA in the Hartford region, which is the Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG). However, CRCOG told the CCRPA they did not want the entire region joining its agency as a whole, but contacted the towns within the CCRPA to see which would express interest in joining CRCOG. So far, Plainville and Southington have expressed interest to join CRCOG. The Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, Stephani said, has stated it would be proactive in the legislature to see if they can do anything to keep CCRPA as is.
While keeping CCRPA as it is would be the most desirable option, if that can’t happen, Stephani said he would rather see the CCRPA and all of its towns and programs join the Council of Governments of the Central Naugatuck Valley. He said this option works because “all of our assets and liabilities would be passed most neatly and orderly to one group.”
There are two decisions that need to be made among the CCRPA and the seven towns it covers: each town will have to determine what adjacent agency, either Hartford or Naugatuck Valley, to join. “CCRPA has no interest in that decision, but can provide information, as requested, to help towns decide,” Stephani said in an email sent out to government officials and other parties involved, recently.
The other decision to be made is by CCRPA, to decide if it would rather terminate itself, or agree to consolidate with the Naugatuck Valley agency. The CCRPA board was expected to meet on Nov. 7. However results of that meeting were not available at press time.
If CCRPA chooses to terminate itself, it would continue to function until five of its seven towns joined an adjacent agency, or until Dec. 31, 2014, which is the deadline for completion of the regionalization. Throughout that process, CCRPA would need to find other organizations to assume the responsibilities of completing current projects, programs, etc., of its agency. If the CCRPA consolidated with the Naugatuck Valley agency, all existing CCRPA contracts, grants, assets and liabilities would be handed over directly to that organization.
Stephani said he disagrees with any idea that this regionalization will be more efficient. In fact, he said, he feels the complete opposite.
“By consolidating (and making larger organizations)… you are losing a level of service,” Stephani said, referring to the fact that the 14 employees of the CCRPA personally know the communities they serve, and the details of what makes up these towns. Bristol, Southington or Plainville are one of seven towns right now covered by the CCRPA. If they join the Hartford region, they will be one of 30 or one of 20 if they join the Naugatuck Valley region, said Stephani. “This is a big loss for the state and the region. It’s really sad.”
Stephani has an extensive background in government and planning, as he spent several years as a town manager in the western part of the country, and was part of a regional planning agency that covered nearly three million people.
“When you get into bigger and bigger organizations, you are much less aware of the specific needs for each town,” said Stephani, who has authored two books – “The New City Manager” and “Zoning 101.” “The larger you get, the less of a personal touch you have within your scope.”
Stephani made references to a $70,000 grant CCRPA awarded to New Britain to support local farmers and increase the availability of health food.
“We were able to do this because we knew about that specific issue going on in that community,” Stephani said, adding that the CCRPA is able to find projects that are a need in each specific town.
In Bristol, CCRPA was able to secure grants and funding for the reconstruction of Mix Street, for the removal of the Bristol Brass Dam, for local Dial-A-Ride services, for intersection improvements at the South, Union and Church Street intersections, and more. Currently, CCRPA is in the middle of a project to revitalize Forestville, is studying traffic, green space and access to the Pequabuck River on Memorial Boulevard, and more. Stephani said he believes CCRPA will have a number of the current projects completed by the Dec. 2014 deadline.
In Plainville, CCRPA was able to secure funding for pavement rehabilitation on Camp Street, sidewalk improvements near Toffolon Elementary School and the Middle School of Plainville, and also local Dial-A-Ride services. CCRPA developed Safe Routes to School plans for Plainville, Southington, and Plymouth, and also completed traffic studies in Plainville and Bristol.
In Southington, CCRPA was able to secure grants and funding for pavement preservation on Mount Vernon Road and West Center Street, the extension of the Farmington Heritage Trail into Cheshire, sidewalk improvements near DePaolo Middle School and also secured funding for the Interstate 84 bridge over abandoned railroad rehabilitation and also Mount Vernon Road reconstruction.
Several attempts were made requestion comments from the state’s Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey, as well as Connecticut Conference of Municipalities for additional information. However, calls weren’t returned by press time.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver. com.