Like a broken sidewalk, or the cloying odor of a backyard garbage dump, the large map at city hall vividly shows how the quality of life in some city neighborhoods is leaking away.
The question is whether this map, which plots the location of nearly a year's worth of nuisance complaints, and incidents of bad housing, blight and lawlessness, also suggests a path to stability. City officials are hoping so.
Influenced by statistics-driven management tools used in New York City, Baltimore and a few dozen other cities, Hartford officials are seeking to dramatically improve the way city hall responds to neighborhood problems.
The idea is to track complaints and create a priority system that consistently targets the worst areas with the most resources. But what if the list is so long that it outstrips Hartford's budget-strapped agencies? If Mayor Pedro E. Segarra were to lose in November, would the next administration embrace the data-driven management approach, the computer software that can measure the performance of city staff members, the monthly analysis meetings?
These are some of the unknowns as the city embarks on HARTSTAT, its own version of New York's CompStat and Baltimore's CitiStat.
"There are always going to be problems that outstrip resources, and there is always a need to improve response," said David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer and lead development official. He was appointed in 2008 and was retained by Segarra after the mayor succeeded former Mayor Eddie A. Perez in the summer of 2010.
"It's not even about working harder. It's about working smarter," Panagore said. "It's letting the data drive the allocation of resources; it's working interdepartmentally - police supporting housing code, supporting public works, supporting, health, supporting fire."
There are nearly 11,000 dots plotted on the easel-sized map in Panagore's office. Each dot represents a complaint or a minor criminal incident logged at city hall or the police department in a 10-month period, from July 1, 2010, to April 30.
Major crimes, fires and medical emergencies aren't counted. The focus here is on nuisances, oppressive conditions, hazards and delays in city services - lingering, deeply seated problems that have conspired to make life harder for tens of thousands of Hartford residents.
Included are rodent complaints, blighted housing, prostitution, public drunkenness, drug use, overgrown yards, outside rubbish, potholes and delays in the city's response to complaints about bulk-pickup and waste removal.
The 17 city neighborhoods are ranked by numbers of complaints. Frog Hollow logged the most during the July to April period, with 1,687. It was followed by Asylum Hill with 1,164, Northeast with 1,073, Barry Square with 980 and downtown with 868. The lightly populated South Meadows, a largely industrial area, had the fewest, with 122.
Marilyn Rossetti notes that it doesn't take computer models to know there are too many blocks in Hartford "that look like nobody has thought about them for a long time."
But Rossetti, a former councilwoman, said she sees value in the HARTSTAT approach.
"We're a little piecemeal now," Rossetti said of the city services.
"We do have to put those pieces together. Hartford has a small enough footprint geographically for us to do that - but you have to involve the people who live here," said Rossetti, a city resident and executive director of Open Hearth, an organization that shelters and counsels homeless men in Hartford. "People would want something like this to work. They'll buy in if they feel that there is accountability and true follow-up."
"After all," she said, "you can't have a health program that talks to kids about nutrition and expect it to work, if the kids are living in crap - if they have holes in their ceiling and have to walk by drug dealers."
Panagore said a key focus of the CompStat models is removing barriers like street crime and blight that keep social and health programs from working.
Councilman Robert Painter, a Segarra supporter and a backer of the HARTSTAT approach, acknowledged a challenge for city officials.
"You do raise the expectations within the city when you compile a list of problems," he said. "You're faced with trying to meet those expectations with limited resources. But you can tick problems off the list while increasing efficiency. And you are fitting the treatment to the diagnosis."
Yale University Professor Douglas Rae said that data-driven management tools are fairly straightforward initiatives that can be complicated to pull off correctly.
Rae, a professor of political science who has written extensively about cities and served as New Haven's chief executive officer in the early 1990s, said that for starters, a cohesive city government is needed.
"It takes cooperation from a series of distinct agencies, a financial investment for the software upgrades and a commitment to listen to neighborhood input," Rae said.
"It requires that police, fire, health, housing pay attention to things that may not directly be their responsibility, to peek their heads out of silos and cooperate, which is often not their natural inclination," he added.
"And if Mayor Segarra doesn't win in November, you would be in trouble if the next administration doesn't embrace this," Rae said.
He added that he was a supporter of these kinds of initiatives.
"It's great if you can do it," said Rae. "I'd love to see the results in Hartford."
Matthew O'Connor, a spokesman for city employee unions that represent professional workers such as the engineers and inspectors at city hall, said that the unions are generally supportive of efforts that bridge gaps between city departments.
"It's a matter of laying out the expectations, of spelling out the rules," O'Connor said.
TRACKING RESIDENTS' COMPLAINTS
The five Hartford neighborhoods
with the most complaints logged from July 1 to April 30.
1,687: Frog Hollow
1,164: Asylum Hill
980: Barry Square
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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