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Agenda For The Region: No More 169 Fiefdoms

Greater Hartford has to start acting like a region, not a collection of towns

Hartford Courant editorial

January 09, 2011

Any state or municipal leaders who look at Greater Hartford as a collection of separate cities and towns are failing their constituents. It is an interconnected region still trying to adapt 20th-century taxation, spending and government policies to problems that require 21st-century solutions and that needs to change.

Adhering to municipal boundaries while trying to develop sound economic development, transportation, land use, public safety or education policies ignores the critical importance of using shared resources to create a whole much stronger than its parts. To have a region that can pay its bills, offer first-rate services and attract good workers and modern businesses means changing the rules.

Nothing has brought this problem into clearer relief than the state's looming multibillion-dollar shortfall and the resulting pressure on municipal budgets.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is looking at a budget riddle that will require cuts in spending and increased taxes. For towns, this could mean a reduction in state aid. Towns that have already been trimming their workforces and negotiating labor contracts with no increases will have to do more to remain solvent. Service cutbacks such as fewer library hours, delayed road repairs and reductions in extracurricular school activities will all be considered.

But beyond threatening potentially unpopular cuts to these high-profile budget lines, town officials have a chance to take a hard look at ways to keep expenses down while maintaining services that residents want and need.

State and local officials should find common purpose as they try to keep their budgets afloat and rework the delivery of government services. To get the most of every tax dollar will require strong state leadership with the backing of mayors, council members and selectmen. This means increasing regional cooperation to maximize the effectiveness of spending.

What the State Can Do

More of state aid to towns should be awarded contingent upon cooperation between two or more towns, whether forming regional police departments or joint public works departments, or starting regional school initiatives. If the state provides towns money through bonding, that too should be linked to initiatives between two or more towns. A program offering towns more state money if they form regional health districts, for example, has been successful in recent years and allowed many towns to save money without losing important services.

Staff members in the state Office of Policy and Management should be assigned more oversight of programs that will draw municipalities into cooperation, with financial incentives taken from the state aid-to-towns funding.

A regional institute, created out of existing resources at state universities, could determine which regional efforts make fiscal sense and how to overcome obstacles to setting them up.

Governments can experiment by, say, creating a regional park service with the Metropolitan District Commission towns, which already cooperate on the upkeep of the riverfront park system. See if it works and saves money.

To provide immediate relief to local budgets, the General Assembly should review the hundreds of unfunded mandates, paid for by towns, that drain municipal budgets. A requirement that towns provide transportation for local students going to private schools in their towns, for example, might no longer be viable.

The mechanics of other mandates such as payments for special education students should be reconsidered to get maximum efficiency for spending.

Ways to overcome the loss of revenue to towns because of the failure of the state to make full payments in lieu of taxes on properties the state exempts from taxes should be considered.

With what is likely to be a contentious budget process in Hartford this spring, the towns, which have to pass budgets before the process is finished, will be forced to make estimates of state aid and their budgets could be put in jeopardy. Long term, the state needs to readjust the budget schedule to have its allocations set in time for the towns to produce budgets based on good information.

Towns' reliance on property taxes for the lion's share of their revenue puts pressure on local officials and property owners and increases the demand for state aid. The legislature and governor could produce another reliable revenue stream such as an increase in the sales tax giving towns the difference or development of shared asset districts.

These districts pool tax receipts regionally. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, a long-established asset district takes the taxes from new nonresidential developments and distributes the money to municipal members. This system provides more municipal revenue and encourages towns to support each other's efforts to attract new business and industry rather than compete with one another.

Communities under this system are also more likely to develop regional plans to preserve valuable open space, design mass transit in concert with clusters of new housing and focus development in a way that strengthens the whole region. The demand to build up the local property tax base is lessened, as is the pressure to accept duplicate hodgepodge development of shopping malls, subdivisions and industrial parks in every town.

Expanded cooperation between regional towns and Hartford to offer students the best education, whether in the city or suburbs, is vital to producing new workers who will have the skills and training to take increasingly technical jobs in fields such as health care, green energy development, insurance and the defense industry.

Many who will make up the region's prime workforce in the none-too-distant future are in the lower socioeconomic population who currently test far below their affluent peers. Without closing this well-documented achievement gap, the region will not have the workers with which to compete for employers who offer 21st-century jobs.

Leadership Needed

These kinds of changes are not for the faint of heart. Political courage and leadership are required at all levels. Hard decisions that balance budgets now will face opposition from well-entrenched interest groups. Longer-term changes that position the region for growth, maintain the state's high quality of life and its strong schools, preserve the characteristic landscape and make the most efficient use of taxes will require vision and a willingness to upset our steady habits.

This year, the reorganization of the state's probate system to keep it from financial ruin provided a sterling example of what can be done when forceful advocates make a sound case and follow through with action. Despite the weight of history, Connecticut will have cut the number of probate courts from 117 to 54 as of this month. With the election of judges to run the new regional probate courts this past November, voters endorsed the peaceful transition.

Despite the perception of Connecticut towns being run by hidebound Yankees resistant to change, local officials and their constituents are all too aware of our financial straits. Hanging onto expensive and outmoded methods of delivering government services makes no sense. Embracing efficient, forward-thinking regional innovations will help dig us out of our current fiscal crisis and position the region for growth.

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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