Regional government: A solution in search of a problem

R. Michael Goman

Mounting financial stress in the public sector has intensified a drumbeat for more regionalization of local government.

Regional government is more efficient, the theory goes, as some duplicative job functions and services could be eliminated and buying power would improve through consolidated purchasing. My firsthand experience tells me otherwise.

I’ve lived and worked in five regions in two countries having both regional and non-regional governments, and what I’ve witnessed is that regionalization reduces service levels to local taxpayers and, over time, simply increases the overall size and cost of government.

Many Connecticut towns have already joined to form purchasing groups for everything from insurance to utilities to supplies and materials.  Nothing prevents towns from forming these groups, and we should encourage local leaders to utilize them wherever possible. Short of coercion, there’s no need to create a regional government entity to achieve this purpose.

The idea that efficiencies can be found through consolidating functional areas and positions wrongly assumes that we have large numbers of town employees who are working below their capacity.

Think of it this way: Each individual employee can handle only a certain number of tasks, whether those tasks are police calls, building permits, tax billings or any number of similar duties. If we take two towns each having, for example, two full-time clerks who can handle 300 tax-bill inquiries per month, then consolidation would simply mean having four clerks handling 600 inquiries per month. In other words, no net savings would occur. I’ve been a volunteer member of a local town board for 17 years, and my direct observation is that our towns manage their workforces quite effectively, adjusting positions and hours to reflect the local workload.

Where regionalization theory really goes awry is when we recognize that it’s likely that consolidation would lead to a decision that the four clerks in my example would now need a supervisor, thereby increasing the overall size and cost of government. This unintended consequence shouldn’t come as a surprise — since when has big government been more effective than small? Regional (or county) systems simply do what every large organization tends to do: Over time they get larger, more bureaucratic, less responsive and costlier.

It’s also important to recognize that a large share of the necessary leadership and management work done in local government is performed by volunteers. Regionalized governments inevitably replace these volunteers with “professional management,” adding a whole new layer of overhead.

If cost savings is the goal, a regional form of government would have to replace some number of local governments, not simply be layered on top of them. Do we honestly think that a larger, more distant government will be equally accountable, provide higher levels of service, or cost less?

Small, local governments are in fact the ideal against which all others should be measured. They operate with minimal staff and flat management structures, and they are closely connected to the people they serve. It’s easy to communicate with them and hold them accountable.

As a result, they tend to be more responsive and do a better job of carefully managing taxpayers’ resources than do their larger brethren. What makes us think that a larger government unit will improve these results?

It strikes me that Connecticut’s budget troubles do not reside in our towns. For the most part, local government does an excellent job of managing their operating budgets and debt levels, while providing residents with high levels of service, responsiveness and accountability. Instead of discussing how to make local governments larger (and regional), perhaps our focus should be on finding ways to make our state government more cost effective.

R. Michael Goman is a principal of Goman + York Property Advisors LLC, an East Hartford-based real estate advisor. Goman is also a former member of the Simsbury Board of Ed.

*Article as seen in the Hartford Business Journal