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Hartford Shouldn't Have To Stand Alone

August 14, 2005
Arthur L. Spada

The poorest city in Connecticut bears the heaviest property tax. It is home to a disproportionate number of poor, elderly and young people requiring inordinate social services. Its companies - ING Group and WFSB-TV, Channel 3, among them - are getting poached by surrounding communities.

The strain is killing Hartford.

But Hartford can survive if it combines forces with the county, as many cities have done with great success, including Pittsburgh and Nashville.

Hartford County encompasses 29 towns inside 751 square miles. Its population has grown in the past half-century from 500,000 people to more than 800,000 and continues to grow.

The city of Hartford's population, however, has declined from a high of 177,397 in 1950 to 121,578 in 2000.

The suburbs' attitude toward Hartford is bizarrely schizophrenic. While serving as the state's capital, the city also is expected to serve as the unsavory landfill for 70 towns and an annual disembarkation port for 1,185 felons released back into the city.

Hartford is yoked with eight halfway houses, 22 alcohol and drug clinics, 16 homeless shelters and "transitional living centers," six soup kitchens and 14 food pantries, according to the Department of Correction. Another way station, this one for 500 early-release inmates, has been proposed for the North Meadows.

The city has been the insurance capital of the world, the arsenal of democracy, a major manufacturing center and a principal financial hub. But now it's deteriorating, and a region with a collapsing central city cannot successfully compete on a global scale.

Indeed, Connecticut leads the nation in employment stagnation. Businesses will not locate in the Hartford region unless the region's government is efficient and services are delivered at a moderate cost.

The replication of municipal functions in Hartford County's towns is grossly wasteful. The region does not need 29 town clerks, 29 chiefs of police, 29 superintendents of schools and 29 collective bargaining contracts for each police department.

Towns can gain when they are not competing for one another's employees (and employers) and spending taxpayers' money needlessly. The region can profit from volume purchasing and centralized public safety and radio emergency dispatching, among many other things. A regional land use plan will assure land conservation.

There are several successful governance models in the nation. One such model consolidates all the region's towns into a new government. In 1899, Manhattan and its sister cities consolidated into what is now New York City and five boroughs. In 1963, Nashville consolidated the towns of Davidson County, saving millions of taxpayer dollars by eliminating town service duplication.

Another model has been successful in Miami-Dade, Toronto and Minneapolis-St. Paul. This "two-tier system" retains political boundaries, but some functions are assumed by a regional government, including parks maintenance, law enforcement, traffic control, airports and welfare.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pa., are excellent case studies in regional restructuring.

Pittsburgh, like Hartford, was deteriorating in the 1980s, causing serious erosion to its suburbs. A state act in 1993 created a county board of commissioners responsible for regional assets such as libraries, stadiums, parks, museums and the zoo. In 1995, the county stopped collecting personal property tax and instead imposed a 1 percent sales tax, allocating half the proceeds to regional assets, one-quarter to county tax relief and the rest to Pittsburgh and other municipalities. As a result, home property taxes have dropped substantially, and the sales tax reaped $144 million last year. The sales tax is limited to the county and exempts food and clothing. Nearly 25 percent of the tax revenue is raised from people outside the area who patronize the region.

A 1 percent sales tax in Hartford County could generate millions of dollars yearly, could underwrite libraries and museums and dozens of other public institutions, and could lower the fiscal disparity among towns.

Whatever model we choose, it is essential that we reconstruct our region.

To remain static will surely accelerate the region's erosion and leave us weakened in the competition for global survival.

Arthur L. Spada, a lifelong Hartford resident, is a former state public safety commissioner and Superior Court judge.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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