I continue to think about consolidating municipal government in the capital region of Connecticut, and I’ll continue to write about it. To recap, I believe:
- Hartford and several surrounding towns should merge into a municipality of 300,000 people or more.
- A merged Hartford would be able to plan and build for the future in ways that our current separate municipalities, for political reasons, cannot.
- A merged Hartford would save $50 million or more annually by consolidating services and eliminating duplicative expenses.
- A merged Hartford would deliver services more effectively.
- A merged Hartford would be able finally to deal with education and housing equity.
In some of my earlier essays, I proposed that Hartford merge with its seven contiguous suburbs: South Windsor, East Hartford, Wethersfield, Newington, West Hartford, Bloomfield, and Windsor. Such a merger would create a city of nearly 400,000 people, about 60% white, 20% Black, 17% Hispanic, based on some figures that I developed a few years ago. It would be about the 50th largest city in the country, larger than Tampa, smaller than Oakland.
People all over greater Hartford tell me it will never happen, even though they recognize the advantages of such a merger, even though there is very little actual downside to doing it (other than putting some municipal employees out of work).
Lately, I’ve been thinking more about how to make it happen. Politicians won’t do it, and that’s not a knock on politicians. The reality is that politicians must follow their constituents; only in rare circumstances does a politician advocate taking the community someplace that the community doesn’t want to go.
Change has to come from the people; the people have to want things to be different. That’s a challenge, because the overwhelming prevailing attitude of the people of greater Hartford (outside of Hartford and maybe East Hartford) is “I like my town the way it is.” In that environment there will be no change in governance. A merger will happen only when the people want it.
I’ve been wondering what will change the prevailing attitude in what I’ll call Hartford’s suburbs? When and where will the people say, “There’s a better way to do this”?
More to the point, the question is where will leadership come from? The answer: West Hartford. I’ve been thinking about this conclusion for months. The Courant’s lengthy piece about West Hartford got me motivated. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it to everyone who’s interested in the community dynamics of greater Hartford.
The Courant tells the story well. West Hartford is the largest of the capital region suburbs, with over 70,000 people. It is almost without question the most economically vital, with substantial retail and financial activity, as well as significant, varied industry in its southeast corner. West Hartford is racially diverse and becoming more so as time goes by. It isn’t a cheap place to live, but it boasts substantial affordable housing. Its town services have an excellent reputation, and in my experience, that reputation is well deserved.
West Hartford’s public education system has been a leader in the region for decades. Its school system has thoughtfully pursued all manner of educational issues for many years, and not simply by highlighting an issue one year and forgetting about it the next. Important issues become part of the curriculum and are pursued diligently. Progress, or lack of it, is measured, and programs are changed and refined to be sure defined objectives are achieved.
Most importantly, and not implying anything negative about other towns, West Hartford is a town with a conscience. It embraces important social issues on a town-wide basis with heartfelt sincerity. It strives to do the right thing, and the town is willing to put its bank account into the effort. Does everyone in West Hartford agree with each of the town’s social initiatives? Of course not, but the town works through important issues and reaches a consensus to move forward.
West Hartford exists side-by-side with Hartford, with streets criss-crossing Prospect Avenue, the longest boundary West Hartford shares with any town. Only the short boundary with Newington is as thoroughly populated on both sides. (Just two roads connect West Hartford and Bloomfield, which share no neighborhoods; Avon is on the other side of Avon Mountain, and Farmington is connected only by Route 4.)
Many of the residents of West Hartford already recognize the residents of Hartford’s West End as neighbors and kindred spirits. New Britain Avenue ties Elmwood to Behind the Rocks and Southwest Hartford, just as Albany Avenue connects Blues Hills with Golf Acres and Blue Hills, albeit with the University of Hartford as something of a buffer. Elizabeth Park is literally shared territory – Prospect Street divides residents in terms of governance but hardly in any other ways. For decades, West Hartford residents have paid attention to how these major portions of Hartford are governed. Other Hartford neighborhoods are less directly connected to West Hartford, but West Hartford is justifiably concerned about the livability of the rest of Hartford, as well.
West Hartford also cannot be blind to the fact that the economic vitality it currently enjoys is dependent on the success of its neighboring municipalities. West Hartford center and Blueback Square, as well as West Farms Mall and Corbins Corner, depend on the continued economic success of the residents of Hartford and several west-of-the-river towns, including Wethersfield, Newington, Farmington, Avon, and Bloomfield. What happens in the entire region is important to the future of West Hartford.
As West Hartford begins to consider how regional issues limit its continued growth and economic well being, it comes face-to-face with the problems of regional governance. West Hartford already is well aware of these problems, because it regularly has to deal with cross-border issues important to the town. Most recently, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor aired her frustrations with shared regional services in her April 18 op-ed about the Metropolitan District Commission in the Courant. It wasn’t news to her, of course, that the MDC is the personal sandbox of several Hartford politicos, but events forced her, finally, to take a stand on the issues. It‘s clear to her, and to Mayor Bronin in Hartford, that we need a sewer and water commission answerable directly to a single elected leader, which implies a single government.
Finally, West Hartford will be forced to deal with the fact that excellent municipal governance, including the delivery of fundamental as well desirable services, is expensive. As West Hartford looks for ways to sustain its success and to manage its problems, controlling costs will be key. Merging with other municipalities is the obvious way to achieve cost savings.
And so it is that West Hartford and its citizens are uniquely positioned to lead greater Hartford to the single governmental structure we need for our community to move forward. West Hartford is populated by many forward-looking people who thoughtfully consider important issues and act on them. West Hartford has stable and successful governance.
When and how will West Hartford actually take the lead and urge other towns to engage in discussions about merging? I don’t know, but I think the time is coming. Hartford isn’t exactly shrinking in population, and West Hartford is approaching the limits of its population growth, but in many ways West Hartford will continue to emerge as the dominant municipality in the region. West Hartford will begin to see that its continued growth and success depends on the health of its neighbors.
It will start with West Hartford.