The other night I was talking to some people about why we need to merge towns into one city. Perhaps because they wanted to shut me up, one said to me, “Okay, if you want to merge the towns, you’re going to have to convince a lot of people it’s a good idea. How are you going to do that?”
For a moment, they thought they had me and we could go back to discussing Downton Abbey, but I said “I’ve thought about that.” Their faces dropped.
We need to start with an organization. We need people to come together as a group to get to work on Hartford’s future. Call it Hartford Rises. Well, maybe not, because there’s a Hartford Rising. How about New Hartford? No, got one of those already. Maybe Hartford on the Move. Okay, until some people actually form the organization and pick a name, we’ll call it Hartford on the Move. Hartford on the Move will begin and drive the dialog that’s necessary to get the change process started. Hartford On the Move probably will hold public forums to explain why change is necessary, that is, to explain why doing things differently in greater Hartford will be a good thing for all of us.
There’s a lot of work to be done. Hartford On the Move will sponsor research necessary to provide objective evidence that reorganization will result in more effective governance at significantly lower cost. What kind of research? Economic data, for one. Most people I talk to believe that we could save a lot of money by merging and eliminating duplicative services, but no one knows for sure, because no one has done the research. It isn’t a simple problem, because our towns don’t all use the same accounting systems, and it isn’t immediately apparent how many people each of our towns employ in various services. So, for example, if we want to know how much money we could save by consolidating building departments, we’d need to know how many town employees each town uses in that function, and then we’d need to compare those numbers to how many employees other cities use to the same function. Similarly all other town functions, like the clerk’s office, the assessor, snow plowing, parks and recreation and education.
We also need to research how other cities have attacked similar challenges. Decades ago Minneapolis citizens undertook a long-term effort to share revenues among the city and suburbs that has been of demonstrable benefit to both the city and the suburbs. How did they do that? They have a citizen-run organization called the Citizens League, and another called the Itasca Project. Lancaster Pennsylvania has an informal citizens problem solving group. Other cities have moved from city to county government. None of those cities is exactly the same as Hartford, but their experiences, and their successes and failures, could help us understand what needs to be done.
What is Hartford On the Move? It’s a nonprofit organization. In the beginning it will be run by a board of fifteen or twenty volunteer citizens; eventually it will have a paid staff. It will engage consultants to assist with the collection of information important to the change process and to help formulate recommendations to the community. The leadership of Hartford On the Move will come from private citizens who care about the Hartford community. It will be a community organization, not a political effort. Sixty years ago, we let the politicians run the process that got rid of county government and got us into this mess; we won’t make that mistake again.
How will Hartford On the Move be funded? By donations from individuals, by grants from public and private foundations, by corporate gifts. Hartford On the Move will be a community-wide effort supported by all segments of the community. It will build support over time, and as support grows, the effectiveness of Hartford On the Move will grow.
Is Hartford On the Move possible? Yes! It isn’t just possible; Hartford’s already done it. We called it Riverfront Recapture, and it effected significant positive change for the community in exactly the way I described in the preceding paragraphs. Riverfront Recapture developed out of the work of private individuals recognizing that the City had a problem – physical separation from the Connecticut River – and that local and state political processes were not able to address the problem effectively. Those citizens organized, raised money, fostered awareness and led the change.
How was Riverfront Recapture funded? It received substantial grants from local for-profit corporations in the Hartford area. It received multiple millions of dollars in grants from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. If they supported reclaiming the river, they will support reclaiming our future.
Don’t like the Riverfront Recapture model? Okay, what do you have that’s better? We should be open to anything. Whatever it is, let’s do something. We’ve been doing nothing for 30 years, and nothing is getting us nowhere.
Greater Hartford needs a Riverfront Recapture for municipal reorganization. We need Hartford On the Move.