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Relics of CT history with a new twist: ‘County Equivalents’

Hartford County Building is etched in stone at The Superior Court on Washington street in Hartford.
Yehyun Kim
Hartford County Building is etched in stone at The Superior Court on Washington street in Hartford.

As state officials read the weekly COVID-19 transmission reports by county — for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Nov. 16 that Windham, Litchfield and New London counties were recording “high” levels of virus transmission — some state residents might pause to ask: Connecticut has counties?

Well, sort of, not really — but we are likely to get “county equivalents.”

The state had counties for nearly 300 years, until they were abolished in 1960. What remained were ghosts of counties — those county boundaries the National Association of Counties calls “counties without county government.” The boundaries survived because that is how the U.S. Census Bureau and most federal agencies that use Census information report their data.

Unfortunately, county data is almost useless in Connecticut, because the groups of towns in the eight historic counties are not the same as the groups of towns in the regional entities we have today — nine planning regions represented by “councils of governments,” or COGs. For example, historic Hartford County has 29 towns, while the Capitol Planning Region (also known as the Capitol Region Council of Governments) covers 38 towns.

In 2019, state officials petitioned the U.S. Census Bureau to designate the planning regions/COGs as “county equivalents,” so data will be reported for the regional entities that actually use it.

The change is now in final review by state agencies. Barring a last-minute objection, it will be approved by the end of the year and go into effect in 2023.

As everyone connected with county equivalency hastens to say, it is concerned with the collection and reporting of statistical data and does not signal a return to county government or county taxes.

But the change offers a chance to look back at a system that was part of Connecticut’s history, an instructive if not a terribly important part.

“No great county leaders have left their mark on the state for future school children to read about and refer to with patriotic pride,” wrote UConn professor Rosaline Levenson in her definitive 1966 book “County Government in Connecticut: Its History and Demise.”

One reason for this, Levenson wrote, was that “counties were never allowed too much power.”

Towns came first

Connecticut began establishing counties in 1666, per Levenson, three decades after the river towns of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield were established. There were six counties by the time of the American Revolution; the last two, Tolland and Middlesex, were added in 1785.

As they developed over the years, counties ran courts and jails, oversaw road building and collected vital statistics. In their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, counties also issued liquor licenses (a top source of revenue), ran homes for “neglected or abandoned children,” administered the Widow’s Aid program and supported agricultural extension programs.

Counties were run by a three-person appointed board of commissioners and an elected “high sheriff,” the latter a position from which one could deliver considerable patronage. Each county had a county building. The counties were supported in part by a tax on member towns.

The demise of the county era perhaps began with the creation of the State Highway Department in 1895, which took over road building. Prohibition in 1919 ended the county liquor license franchise; when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the state created the Liquor Control Commission, which at least shared revenue with the counties. The Widow’s Aid program was replaced by a state program, Aid to Dependent Children, in 1941.

So it went. By the ’40s and ’50s, the counties’ main duties were running jails and children’s homes, and they weren’t running them all that well, Levenson reported.

Two criticisms increasingly leveled at county officials were that they operated in secret, long before the Freedom of Information Act, and made appointments based on political affiliation or connection rather than competence. The obvious problem with appointing political hacks to posts for which they are unqualified is that they are likely to screw them up.

And so they did. Continual disturbances and complaints of abuse and mistreatment at jails and children’s homes in the 1940s and ’50s brought demands for reform. The county homes for neglected children were abolished in 1955, the responsibility going to the (then) State Welfare Department. A state-wide, state-run court system was adopted in 1960.

The county jails, and a few other minor duties, were the last to go, although the scandal-plagued sheriff system hung on for decades until it was replaced by a state marshal system in 2000.

Other states had issues with counties in the mid-20th century, said Lyle Wray, executive director emeritus of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. The choice was to make them better or do away with them. Many states opted to strengthen their counties; Connecticut chose to eliminate them. Levenson did find someone who suggested —“perhaps facetiously” — keeping the counties and abolishing the towns.

Connecticut counties might have saved themselves if they had embraced new regional thinking, if they were something more than a vestige of the spoils system. But no. “The counties displayed a sterility of imagination, leadership and innovation, and became practically intellectual wastelands,” Levenson observed. Of course, the General Assembly could have recreated or strengthened county government, but it didn’t.

Rise of the COGs

With counties gone, there was an “obvious need” for a framework to combine some services across town lines, Levenson wrote. Enter the state’s 15 regional planning regions, then just getting up to speed, albeit a fairly slow speed. The early plans were largely collections of local plans, so they had little regional vision.

In the 1970s and ’80s, some of the regional planning agencies became councils of government, or COGs, which are voluntary associations of elected municipal leaders who address issues of common interest.

As Levenson anticipated, some of the more progressive COGs, notably the Capitol and Northeast regions, began offering an array of services across town lines; everything from bulk purchasing, animal shelters and police communications to online permitting, property revaluation and GIS services, among others.

As this piecemeal regionalism continued, it occurred to policymakers that 15 regional planning agencies was way too many in a state the size of Connecticut. In the early years of the last decade, pushed by a legislative commission studying regional services, alternatives were suggested. One was to align the COGs with the old counties, but towns had moved on, created new alliances, and that idea went nowhere. Another was to have five strong COGs.

After some back and forth — the process was largely voluntary, facilitated by the state Office of Policy and Management — the parties settled on nine new regions, all of which became COGs. While many think nine is too many, “it’s better than 15,” said state Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, a longtime advocate of regional shared services.

Regional Councils of Government in Connecticut.
Regional Councils of Government in Connecticut.

Would counties make sense?

Although there is no sentiment or inclination to restart county government in Connecticut, could a case be made for it?

Many think counties are another layer of government; technically they are a political or administrative subdivision of state government and can deliver state services. State government in Connecticut, not unlike local government, is fragmented. The service areas of state agencies are almost all different.

Research by John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, a few years ago identified four transportation management areas, 15 regional transit districts, five homeland security regions, 13 judicial districts, 54 Probate Court districts, 11 state police districts, 585 fire departments, five workforce development boards, nine labor market areas, eight workers’ compensation districts, 104 emergency call centers, five regional mental health boards, three Department of Development Services regions, six Department of Children and Families regions, six regional education service areas, and 73 health departments, among many others.

Organizing these into common service areas, whether or not they are called counties, could increase efficiency, reduce cost and, as Wray said, make government simpler. With state government facing a wave of retirements, it might make sense.

Counties are not fixed entities. They vary dramatically across the country. Some have very little power; some build airports and hospitals.

“As we say around here, if you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen one county,” said Brian Namey of the National Association of Counties.

Some, such as Miami-Dade, have a two-tier system in which the county offers some services and the towns perform others.

And then there’s a subset of county government — metro government. Across the country, 42 regions have merged their city and county governments into a unified metropolitan governments, said Namey. In Kentucky, for example, mergers have taken place in Louisville and Lexington, and one is currently under consideration in the state capital, Frankfort.

Proponents of metro government argue that it eliminates redundancy, increases efficiency, saves money, helps break down isolation of poor persons in center cities and greatly lessens wasteful inter-town competition.

For example, The Hartford Courant has reported that suburban towns have lured dozens of Hartford police officers and new teachers away from Hartford with offers of better pay and benefits. This is the antithesis of regionalism — it drives up costs and weakens the region’s central city, which does no good for its suburbs.

Finally, regional government can boost the economy.

County Lite

In a small state like Connecticut — which is smaller than some Western counties — it made sense to have the state take charge of roads, courts and jails, but some services can work well at the regional level. One is economic development.

Nearly all (93%) of the country’s more than 3,000 counties engage in economic development, most (81%) contribute to economic development projects, and more than half (57%) have economic development departments, according to a studyby the National Association of Counties. This has resulted in numerous economic development initiatives, involving manufacturing, international trade, small business development and others.

By contrast, regional economic development has never been a strength in Connecticut. The old counties never did it, and the state has tended to partner with a single municipality on its projects. University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen strongly suspects the mishmash of local governments and state agencies is hurting the state’s economy.

“I do wonder how much our insane fragmentation contributes to our dismal economic performance (worst in the nation since 2008 and among the slowest recoveries now) and our seeming inability to change the trajectory,” Carstensen said.

But that may be changing. Most COGs played a large role in local COVID response efforts. A state law a decade ago enabled the creation of regional economic development districts, coterminous with the COGs, and seven districts are up and running with two more in the pipeline.

The districts get some federal economic development funds for planning and can apply for other grants. If county equivalency moves ahead, the districts may be able to work with the COGs to compete for a broader spectrum of federal grantsthat are made available to counties. County equivalency may also affect how some federal funds are administered in the state, said Martin L. Heft, undersecretary of the state’s Office of Policy and Management.

The hope is that the economic development districts and county equivalency will get towns thinking more about regional activity. But for it to work, the state itself also must think more regionally, said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which has been pushing for more shared services. He said state officials should think more about partnering with regions.

“Ask the COGs for their top three economic development proposals. Then see if they can be achieved,” he said.

So comes a new iteration of counties in Connecticut, if county equivalency is approved.

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