The need for regionalism or areawide planning and coordination is rooted in a number of related challenges in metropolitan areas, with parallels in the more rural regions within the state:
- In metropolitan areas some problems cannot be solved within municipal boundaries, and decisions made by one municipality can have adverse impacts on other municipalities and the environment. While land has traditionally been divided by political boundaries, to allow more efficient provision of government services and democratic representation, this has not lent itself very well to effective management of natural resources, urban infrastructure, and other multi-jurisdictional systems. Pollution and inefficient use of resources and infrastructure (land, water, air, habitat, fisheries, roads, utilities etc.) are examples of problems that spill over municipal boundaries. Areawide resource management agencies and regional governments have therefore become necessary in most metropolitan areas. This approach is aimed at maintaining local input and decision-making while addressing the shortcomings of fragmented governmental authority when numerous cities, villages, and towns compose a metropolitan area. Especially in fast growing metropolitan areas the problems, challenges, and opportunities associated with urban development need to be cooperatively addressed and resolved. In more rural regions, this shortcoming hampers coordination of services and achieving efficiency of operations and economies of scale.
- Regional coordination and planning is also crucial for the success of undertakings that are too large or complex for any one unit of government to address. Issues such as economic development, solid waste disposal, groundwater management, and preservation of the quality of life in the region are examples of challenges that require regional cooperation. This same characteristic manifests itself in large rural areas where the relative small size of the local units of government compared to the geographic area under their jurisdiction may hamper their ability to address important planning and implementation issues.
- A multitude of programs and projects are initiated each year at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. These programs have specific goals which usually interfere with one another. Regional planning commissions create the needed venue and framework to coordinate these programs and goals into a congruent whole and supporting the goals and objectives of the region. This coordination is needed to integrate various federal, state, regional, and local plans, and to improve the effectiveness, mutual reinforcement, and synergy among various planning efforts. It will also help make the plans more coherent and less confusing to the public and elected officials. With a concerted effort to ensure that the various public and private representatives have coordinated their efforts, their constituent groups and citizens will also be more likely to support it – thus unifying efforts to achieve the quality of life desired in the region. This premise is particularly relevant in the more rural regions because it enables the units of government in these regions to compete for state and federal monies and programs more effectively.
- As municipal budgets are strained and programs suspended or curtailed, cooperative program delivery schemes that provide for the coordination of services and the pooling of resources become more important. Long-term and area-wide planning for the delivery and combining of these services become critical in the task of maintaining services by improving the efficiency of delivery and cost-effectiveness through economies of scale. Regional entities are prime venues for discussing, planning, and implementing such areawide solutions.
Therefore, the benefits from regionalism and regional approaches to planning and coordination of services come from the effectiveness and efficiency of pooling resources, and from utilizing the available structure and capacity within regional development organizations. These regional entities have the areawide leadership and governance framework, program diversity and capacity, and long-term strategic focus to serve as the lead entities to better integrate federal community and economic development, housing, land use and transportation planning, environmental and resource planning, and project development.
In Wisconsin, regional planning commissions have been providing solutions to the challenges outlined above for over 4 decades. The following list outlines some of these solutions in more detail:
- RPCs have a strong, direct public and fiscal accountability to local governments due to the presence of local elected officials who serve on the RPCs. Because of their size, structure, and diverse areas of responsibility, RPCs are able to address local government issues in a comprehensive, yet efficient and cost-effective manner. RPCs also recognize that communities are very different from one another, each with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. Although RPCs may not be able to address every land use challenge facing member local governments, the benefits afforded the region by the existence of RPCs is unmatched by any other governmental entity. Furthermore, the mission of RPCs is crucial to the State’s ability to implement its policies successfully and cost-effectively.
- RPCs provide a forum and mechanism by which local governments can avoid or resolve inter-jurisdictional conflicts and by which local governments and property owners are able to address growth management issues and search out joint solutions. This forum assures collaborative efforts and cooperation among all affected parties—a process that has a higher success rate than a process of state directives.
- RPCs serve as a bridge between the levels and units of government. They serve a bridge in the sense that the RPC is at the place where representatives of various entities of government meet on “neutral ground” to find common values and mutual needs. It also means that RPCs are often proactive in facilitating agreement.
- RPCs provide a staff of professionals with technical and programmatic expertise. Governments of all sizes and types share the technical expertise of RPC staff, providing for a high degree of cost-effectiveness. For these local governments, RPCs serve as a link to state agencies and other organizations, as well as facilitating intra-regional communication.
- Most regional planning commissions in the state cover large rural areas where RPCs fill the gap in planning that cannot be met by small governmental units.
- Regional planning commissions serve to bring together economic development and natural resource issues into a single forum. As people migrate out of 'core' urban areas, establishing good planning in rural, suburban and ex-urban areas is even more important for the conservation of the natural and agricultural resources of the state.
- RPCs, acting as repositories for and developers of demographic and other types of information, have a high degree of respect among people in the private sector. This information is widely used by utility and real estate professions and in other types of business planning. The quality and comprehensiveness of the data and reports produced by the regional commissions is very important to Wisconsin’s growing economy. The importance of this role is reflected in RPC enabling legislation (see Wisconsin Statutes §66.945(8)(a)), as well as in practice throughout the state.