How does the MORE Commission affect Greenwich?

Paul Settelmeyer and state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143rd) briefed Greenwich on what changes the MORE Commission is bringing, specifically to SWRPA. — Ken Borsuk photo

Paul Settelmeyer and state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143rd) briefed Greenwich on what changes the MORE Commission is bringing, specifically to SWRPA.
— Ken Borsuk photo

With many people still unclear about what it does and what impact it will have on residents, Cyndy Anderson from the Greenwich League of Women Voters welcomed people to a recent meeting to, as she put it, “Learn more about MORE.”

The Municipal Opportunities Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission originated from the Connecticut state legislature that made several recommendations designed to create a consolidation of regional government. While this does not have any direct effect on Greenwich’s town government, legislation that emerged from it does impact the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA), a group of municipalities that Greenwich is a part of. As part of the MORE Commission’s changes, SWRPA will cease to be as of Dec. 31, 2014, leaving Greenwich to find a new group to become a part of.

At a League of Women Voters-sponsored meeting earlier this month, a group of close to 30 people were briefed on the changes by Paul Settelmeyer, a member of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) as well as one of the town’s representatives to SWRPA, and state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143rd).

Mr. Settelmeyer explained that SWRPA, which has been in place for 52 years, came about after the state did away with county-level government and instead created regional planning organizations to do intermunicipal planning. SWRPA has worked on projects like a Route 1 corridor study and a Mianus River water quality study that Mr. Settelmeyer said saved municipalities like Greenwich money as well as studies on topics like transportation, affordable housing and parking in the region. There is also an ongoing project doing a coordinated geographic information system (GIS) that he said will help planning departments in the region.

“We took the administrative burden away from the chief elected officials while at all times keeping the chief elected officials involved in knowing what we were doing,” Mr. Settelmeyer said, noting that many of the elected officials in the area, including Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, are not in favor of the change but there was no choice but to comply.

Ms. Lavielle, in keeping with the League of Women Voters tradition, tried to keep her remarks nonpartisan as she discussed the history of the commission, which was formed in 2010 to look at “regional efficiencies and voluntary sharing of resources” to try to save money and was brought back in 2013 in a larger form. The commission is looking at municipal tax authority, board of education functions, municipal mandates, and regional entities like SWRPA.

One of the proposals that came from the commission was the elimination of the vehicle property tax, which was wildly unpopular in Greenwich and, Ms. Lavielle said, “flat out didn’t work” because it didn’t replace the money municipalities would lose if it was eliminated. There has also been discussion of the commission’s work in adjusting property taxes around the state, another unpopular idea in Greenwich. But it was the impact on SWRPA that dominated the discussion.

“The governor’s Office of Policy Management (OPM) has a mandate dating back to 2007 to study the regions and reconfigure and consolidate them by January of next year,” Ms. Lavielle said. “That law has evolved in various ways, and one of the things the law said from the beginning was that any two regions that voluntarily voted to consolidate will not be subject to any further consolidation or reconfiguration by OPM. They can do what they want as long as they do that.”

In response, SWRPA has voted to join the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCO) through a joint resolution from the two organizations but so far has not gotten the final sign-off from the state. Mr. Settelmeyer and Ms. Lavielle both said they had been assured there were no issues, but still SWRPA was waiting.

“The issue we face today is that SWRPA and HVCO have made their application, but at the same time, Greater Bridgeport passed a resolution that it wanted to merge with SWRPA,” Ms. Lavielle said. “OPM has also suggested that perhaps Greater Bridgeport might want to merge with the Naugatuck Valley region and the Naugatuck Valley region has said it doesn’t want that. It wants to merge with Waterbury. Because SWRPA and HVCO have submitted their application, they should be done. All of us have spoken with OPM and they say it’s fine, but we have not gotten straight answers from OPM. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman even told us that she wasn’t sure why it was taking so long.”

Mr. Settelmeyer is on a merger committee helping to oversee the transition but said he hadn’t heard any additional explanation as to what was happening either.

A major part of the discussion was about what impact the change joining up with HVCO would have, other than a name change for the two organizations, which is still being discussed.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘It sounds wonderful, but aren’t you going back to county-level government?’” Mr. Settelmeyer said. “I don’t believe we’re doing that. None of the chief elected officials in the Danbury area or the Stamford area want full-blown county level government like you have in Westchester County. That is not the objective of where this is going.”

Mr. Settelmeyer said “the unknown of this” revolves around proposals that have been voiced over the last three to four years for an increase in the hotel tax in Connecticut to fund regional needs and a surcharge on the sales tax to do the same. He noted there is also a discussion in the legislature about regional involvement in land use decisions and there is concern about there being a lack of definition around it.

“I don’t know if that’s a new office building that would be in Greenwich west of 684,” Mr. Settelmeyer said. “Is that a regional project if you put another big office building out there? Is it a major project south of 95 in Stamford that might need some kind of regional approval? It’s an unknown.”

Mr. Settelmeyer said he was also concerned that this new configuration would put more of a burden on the chief elected officials by taking administrative time to handle things SWRPA had done, particularly when it came to financial controls in the new group with HVCO. He said having more groups put together meant a bigger budget and more responsibilities, which likely meant the new group would have to hire a full-time employee to handle financial issues.

Ms. Lavielle admitted this was all “very confusing,” calling it “alphabet soup” because of all the acronyms and terminology being thrown around. But she said there would be continued work to try to explain it to the communities it will impact.

 

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