Small towns increasingly share equipment, services
For many small town leaders and volunteers, it’s beginning to look like regionalization is the future. No matter how good, or bad, their financial position, or how up-to-date their services are or aren’t, there are still many ways for towns to benefit from shared resources.Sharing a regional high school, as Region One has done for the last 72 years, is a prime example. The six towns in the region share one superintendent, one high school and special education services for the elementary schools, among other things.Land use planning has also benefited recently from a more regional approach. Decisions in one town are likely to affect neighboring towns. All proposed special permits and zoning amendments are now reviewed by the Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments (COG), which is made up of the first selectmen from nine Litchfield County towns, including all six towns in Region One.The COG’s “sister” agency, the Litchfield Hills Council of Elected Officials (LHCEO), administers a unique program funded initially by the Regional Performance Incentive Program. The LHCEO is a group of 11 other Litchfield County towns. When $8.6 million in funding became available in fiscal 2008 (back when the state was solvent), 15 regional planning agencies across the state applied for funding for all sorts of projects.“Technical assistance was a popular proposal [for use of the funds],” said Rick Lynn, planning director at LHCEO. “There were also a lot having to do with public safety and maintenance of infrastructure. A cost benefits analysis was required, as well as a plan to implement.”Lynn believes the request from LHCEO and COG was approved because of its relative simplicity and the obvious tangible benefits that would accrue to the the Litchfield Hills Public Works Equipment Cooperative. LHCEO and COG received $700,000 in seed money for a program that is now self-sustaining — and saving towns money, an estimated $17,475 per year per town.The funds were used to buy a catch basin cleaner and two street sweepers, equipment that towns use typically once a year and don’t want to buy. The plan was devised by local highway department foremen, particularly those in the Litchfield Hills Road Supervisor Association. They get together a few times a year to talk about issues and solutions. They were already used to working with each other, loaning and borrowing equipment to get various jobs done.“Most towns have to use rental equipment or contract out the work,” said Lynn. “It’s the only way towns can afford to do it. Programs like this also foster good state and local partnerships.”Towns in LHCEO and COG can opt in by signing an agreement that spells out the particulars. Those are essentially an hourly rate for equipment use, returning equipment on schedule, fueled and in good condition and allowing only trained department workers to operate it. (Equipment is purchased from companies that provide free training).LHCEO keeps the schedule, which can get a little tricky. Weather and other factors can upset a plan to meet demand at peak times.“Everyone wants to use the street sweeper in April and May,” Lynn said. “It’s one possible constraint to the program. But so far, it has all worked very well.”An initial 11 towns signed up, including Norfolk, Winsted and Colebrook. Cornwall, Kent and Barkhamsted have come on board since. No one has dropped out.The equipment is owned and maintained by LHCEO. The rental fees cover repairs and routine maintenance, registration and insurance and administrative costs, with a little left over to go into a capital replacement account.When repairs are needed, towns can do the work and be reimbursed. If there is a question about who is responsible for damage, LHCEO makes a determination, as per the agreement. “Part of the reason it is running so smoothly is the sense of ownership the towns have,” Lynn said. “They take good care of the equipment. Everyone has been very good about making sure it’s ready for the next town to use. “The catch basin cleaner is stored in Torrington. The street sweepers are in Harwinton and Hartland. Those towns get a reduced hourly rate in exchange for storage space. Other towns can rent the equipment, for a higher nonmember rate, when it is available.Lynn said the program seems to have hit its maximum capacity, but there is a potential for expansion in its future. LHCEO is currently waiting for word on an application for a grant to buy more equipment. On the wish list are two “hot boxes,” used to keep asphalt hot and viable for longer periods during road work; two asphalt recyclers and a hydroseeder, used to plant grass along roads.Cornwall Highway Department Foreman Jim Vanicky said the hydroseeder is something his crew is anxious for.“It is so much more efficient than the way we do it now, which is basically a guy walking along tossing seed. And most of it gets washed away,” Vanicky said.The equipment program has become a model for similar projects.LHCEO is also working on a feasibility study for a regional animal control facility. With COG, it has proposed a regional composting plan. COG is also working on a regional performance grant for joint purchasing of solar energy equipment. Towns are being asked to sign resolutions of endorsement. It is expected the program will allow towns to buy equipment at about a 75 percent discount.An advantage in these highly-competitive grants is having not just an idea, but a plan in place to implement as soon as possible.Many area towns have ground work done to determine which town-owned buildings are suitable for installation. That was thanks to a proposal last summer by DCS Energy for free installations in exchange for tradable energy credits. That program was funded by federal stimulus money, which ran out before anyone here could take advantage of it.