Most of New England is made up of counties that predate the Declaration of Independence. However, these counties exist largely as geographical regions, with few reminders of their former county governments besides old courthouses, maps, and online administrative forms. The neighboring state of Rhode Island abandoned their county governance over 100 years earlier than Connecticut. Vermont and Massachusetts maintain a weak county government similar to what Connecticut once had, but theirs, too, is growing weaker.
At its height, Connecticut's county government was responsible for liquor licenses, and services such as roads, jails, and courts. At the time county level government was abolished in Connecticut, it had little power, and was considered an ineffective “patronage” system of appointed commissioners. Many services that define county governance in other states were delegated to the state or towns.
In 1959, a Democrat-controlled legislature voted to end county government, and serving no other purpose but to manage county jails, the last elected position of county governance, the sheriff, was finally discarded in 2000. It’s a popular opinion that county governance is unnecessary because Connecticut is a small state.
It is often said that “Connecticut is split up into 169 little fiefdoms,” meaning that local governance is the responsibility of the separate 169 cities and towns. Each town provides its own services through taxation. If a small town is unable to operate an expensive service like a high school, it coordinates with surrounding towns for that service to be provided. To keep local tax rates as reasonable as possible, periphery services such as ambulances, animal control and tree maintenance are managed by multiple towns. This coordination is facilitated by Planning Regions, or “Regional Councils of Government,” commonly referred to in Connecticut as COGs.
In Connecticut, COGs have developed as a way to help towns and municipalities looking for ways to reduce their operating costs. Regionalism is now a focus of state government and in an effort to perform more efficiently, the number of COGS has been reduced from 15 to 9 within the past few years. Interestingly, this is nearly the same number as counties, with similar geographic boundaries. In lieu of cost pinches, decreased town-level civic participation, and other considerations, I often wonder if regionalism could further be applied to school boards. In many states, school boards are the dominion of county government.
Occasionally, proposals to re-enact county government come forward, and given the fact that the COGs perform many of the functions of county governments elsewhere--and receive more responsibility every year--it might be worthwhile to ponder their need in Connecticut and what they should look like.
What does county government look like where you live? Does your county government have a large decision making role?
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