Local government in Connecticut
New England towns are geographically similar to civil townships in that the entire territory of the state is completely subdivided into towns. However, they differ primarily in that New England towns, particularly in Connecticut, have broad home rule, and have powers comparable to those that a city in other states would normally have. There are advantages and disadvantages to this system: residents have a greater voice in the decision-making process over local issues. On the other hand, the state's delegation of broad powers to the towns sometimes results in bitter rivalries between towns stemming from projects and programs that encompass multiple towns, as town residents and officials have historically placed local interests ahead of the interests of the region or state as a whole. Decades of legal battles between Bridgeport and Stratford over the expansion of Sikorsky Airport and political fighting between Norwalk and Wilton surrounding construction of the US 7 Freeway are examples.
Connecticut is divided geographically into eight counties, but these counties do not have any associated government structure. The Connecticut General Assembly abolished all county governments on October 1, 1960. The counties continued to have sheriffs until 2000, when the sheriffs' offices were abolished and replaced with state marshals through a ballot measure attached to the 2000 presidential election. Today, counties serve as little more than boundaries for the state's judicial and state marshal system. Connecticut's court jurisdictions still adhere to the old county boundaries, with the exception of Fairfield, Hartford, and New Haven counties, which have been further subdivided into multiple court jurisdictions due to their relatively large populations.
From 1666 to 1960, "weak" county governments existed in Connecticut, where each county commission had limited powers delegated to it by the General Assembly. Each county had a 3-member County Commission, whose members were appointed by the General Assembly; plus a Sheriff who was elected by the voters in each county. Initially, county governments had authority over:
- County courts (transitioned to the State Judiciary in 1855)
- Construction and maintenance of county jails
- Resolving road disputes between towns
- Constructing and maintaining bridges to link adjacent towns
- Maintaining safe houses for neglected and/or abused children
County governments had no direct taxing authority; their funding was provided indirectly through set-asides from state and local taxes. During the first half of the 20th century, county governments were gradually phased out as the General Assembly transitioned powers from the county commissions to either the state government or to individual towns. By the time county governments were abolished by Public Act 152 in 1960, the only remaining responsibility of the county commissions was to oversee and maintain the county jails; those functions were transitioned to the state Department of Corrections or local police departments after the county commissions were disbanded.
Councils of governments
The dissolution of county governments in 1960 created an absence of a regionally-oriented governmental level, which created problems when it came to land use and infrastructure planning. Because the power once reserved for county governments was now in the hands of municipal administrations, major land use, environmental, and infrastructure issues often pitted one town against another, sometimes resulting in little or no progress on some projects. Complicating this, the state constitution delegates a large portion of the state's authority to the towns. That meant that a major multi-town project could be completely derailed if only one of the affected towns opposed the project since the project would require each affected town to issue its own permits for the portions within its territory. This has often led to long and costly lawsuits between towns that support a regional-scale project and those opposed.
In an effort to resolve these conflicts, the State of Connecticut passed legislation in the 1980s establishing fifteen regional councils, which cluster towns with similar demographics into an administrative planning region, instead of adhering to the old county structure. In 2013, the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management approved a merger of the Connecticut River Estuary and the Midstate planning regions to form the Lower Connecticut River Valley Planning Region. See sidebar for prior region alignment.
In 2014 The Office of Policy and Management (OPM) completed a comprehensive analysis of the boundaries of logical planning regions in Connecticut under Section 16a-4c of the Connecticut General Statutes (2014 Supplement). This analysis resulted in the number of planning regions being reduced from the original fifteen (15) to nine (9), as a result of four (4) voluntary consolidations and the elimination of two (2) planning regions. As required by statute, the OPM notified the chief executive officer (CEO) in each municipality that was proposed for redesignation and offered them a thirty (30) day period to appeal the proposed redesignation. Of the seventeen municipalities that were proposed for redesignation by OPM, only three opted to exercise their right to appeal. OPM staff attended meetings in Bristol, Burlington, and Plymouth, and subsequently granted each of the appeals.
Unlike county governments, the authority of regional councils is limited to land use policymaking, infrastructure development, emergency preparedness, and long-term planning for population and economic changes for the communities within their respective jurisdiction. The regional councils have no taxing authority; they are financed by funds from the state and member towns.
Regional councils also have some limited law enforcement authority. If approved by the regional council, member towns can put forth a portion of their law enforcement resources to create regional task forces to combat organized crime and drug trafficking. With assistance from the Connecticut State Police and FBI, several regions have established such task forces. The Northern Connecticut Gang Task Force, Bridgeport Violent Crimes Task Force, and New Haven Safe Streets Gang Task Force are such examples. Individual law enforcement agencies contributing their resources toward these regional task forces retain their original identities, rather than assuming the identity of the regional task force.
Connecticut’s planning regions provide a geographic framework within which municipalities can jointly address common interests, and coordinate such interests with state plans and programs. State statutes authorize the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) to designate or redesignate the boundaries of logical planning regions, whereas the member municipalities of each planning region are authorized under separate state statutes to establish a formal governance structure known as a regional council of governments (RCOG).
Several similar regional agencies exist, including federally designated metropolitan planning organizations. These include several dual-purpose agencies or continuing organizations that were once designated state regional planning agencies. Several may be consolidated in the future.
Unlike most other states outside of New England, where incorporated cities and towns are usually separated by unincorporated territory under the jurisdiction of a county, incorporated cities and towns encompass all of the territory within the state of Connecticut with no portion of the state being unincorporated. The 169 towns of Connecticut are the principal units of local government in the state and have full municipal powers including:
- Corporate powers
- Eminent domain
- Ability to levy taxes
- Public services (low cost housing, waste disposal, fire, police, ambulance, street lighting)
- Public works (highways, sewers, cemeteries, parking lots, etc.)
- Regulatory powers (building codes, traffic, animals, crime, public health)
- Environmental protection
- Economic development
Towns are officially creatures of the state, and their powers are set forth by statute and the state constitution. In practice, as is the case in most of New England, their authority has been very broadly construed, and there is a long-standing tradition of local autonomy.
Towns traditionally had the town meeting form of government, which is still used by some of the 169 towns. Under Connecticut's Home Rule Act, any town is permitted to adopt its own local charter and choose its own structure of government. The three basic structures of municipal government used in the state, with variations from place to place, are the selectman–town meeting, mayor–council, and manager–council.
A town may consolidate with a city or borough that is coextensive with it. The 20 consolidated borough-towns and city-towns are classified by the Census Bureau as both minor civil divisions and incorporated places, while the other 149 towns are classified only as minor civil divisions. Some of the larger, urban towns are also classified in their entirety as census-designated places.
City incorporation requires a Special Act by the Connecticut General Assembly. All cities in Connecticut are dependent municipalities, meaning they are located within and subordinate to a town. However, except for one, all currently existing cities in Connecticut are consolidated with their parent town. Note that towns in Connecticut are allowed to adopt a city form of government without the need to re-incorporate as a city. Connecticut state law also makes no distinction between a consolidated town-city and a regular town.
There are currently twenty incorporated cities in Connecticut. Nineteen of these cities are coextensive with their towns, with the city and town governments also consolidated. One incorporated city (Groton) has jurisdiction over only part of its town. All cities are treated by the Census Bureau as incorporated places regardless of the settlement pattern.
In addition to cities, Connecticut also has a type of dependent municipality known as a borough. Boroughs are usually the populated center of a town that decided to incorporate in order to have more responsive local government. When a borough is formed, it is still part of and dependent on its town. There are currently nine incorporated boroughs in Connecticut. One borough is coextensive and consolidated with its town. The other eight boroughs have jurisdiction over only a part of their town. All boroughs are treated by the Census Bureau as incorporated places. Since 1989, the Census Bureau has also listed Groton Long Point as a borough even though it has not been incorporated as a borough but is only a multi-purpose special services district within the town of Groton.
Village, neighborhood, section of town
Connecticut also has a fair number of non-incorporated communities that are known locally as villages (usually in more rural areas), neighborhoods or "sections of" a city or town. "Villages" in this local Connecticut sense have no separate legal/corporate existence from the town they are in, although a taxing district or volunteer fire department sharing the name of the village may exist for specific services. With some exceptions, people who reside within a village often identify with the town rather than the village. Some villages and named sections of towns and cities were formerly incorporated as boroughs. Some villages are associated with historic districts which can serve to preserve some part of their more historically well preserved areas.
Some village and section names are also used as post office names or as the basis for naming census-designated places (CDPs), although the postal delivery area or CDP associated with the name often is considerably larger than the associated village or section. Some examples of villages, neighborhoods, and sections that have given their names to post offices or CDPs are Falls Village, Mystic, Niantic, Quaker Hill, South Kent, Stafford Springs, and Whitneyville.
- "The Relationship Between State and Local Government" (PDF). Connecticut: A Guide to State Government - The League of Women Voters of Connecticut Education Fund, Inc. 2003. p. 22. Retrieved January 31, 2010.
- Counties, Section VI of Connecticut State Register and Manual, accessed January 31, 2010
- "Regional Planning Organizations (RPOs) in Connecticut". Connecticut Office of Policy and Management. 12 December 2013. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
- "Draft Statewide Transportation Improvement Program" (PDF). CT DOT. 2018. Retrieved 2018-01-30.
- "FBI — Violent Gang Task Forces". FBI.
- the US DOT Metropolitan Planning Organization Database: "Connecticut". Accessed 14 September 2015
- "CT’s Regional Planning Agencies Consolidate, Realign and Disappear". CT By the Numbers, 5 October 2014. Accessed 14 September 2015.
- The "Post Offices in Connecticut" list in the Connecticut State Register and Manual lists the state's post offices and their associated towns.
- Local Government, Section VII of Connecticut State Register and Manual