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