Last week several of my friends sent me the link to Tom Condon’s excellent piece in the CT Mirror about how Louisville and Jefferson County merged to form the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government. If you haven’t seen it, you can find it here: Louisville: Lessons from a regional city.

The merger happened in 2003 after 20 years of advocacy, false starts and substantial planning. The article describes both the process and how Louisville has fared since the merger. It includes balanced reporting about of the arguments of both the advocates for the merger and the opponents, as well as the views of both camps now that the merger has been in place for 16 years.

I read the article with interest because, of course, I believe Hartford should merge with many of the surrounding towns to form one city that in terms of population, geographic size, and governance looks more like most modern American cities. The important question for people who agree that Hartford needs to reorganize is “what can we learn from the Louisville experience?” I take away three important points:

1. Greater Hartford’s Governance Problems Today Are Much Worse Than Louisville’s Was. The populations of greater Hartford and of greater Louisville are quite similar, using the Census Bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Area. In the case of each city, the MSA includes some towns that some would say are not part of the immediate metropolitan area. Despite this statistical flaw, it seems the metropolitan areas are at least comparable in size.

Before the merger, Louisville had one government for 300,000 people. Greater Hartford, on the other hand, has eight governments for 300,000 people. Post-merger, Louisville has one government for over 600,000 people; greater Hartford has over 20 governments for the same number of people.

What’s the point? Simply this: The population of greater Hartford is terribly fragmented compared to other similarly sized American cities. We rarely are able to act together, and we manage ourselves with overlapping and duplicative services. Governing 300,000 people with eight governments makes no sense.

If greater Hartford were thriving, I’d say “so what?”. But we aren’t thriving. The population of greater Hartford is shrinking, and employment is static or falling. Greater Hartford needs to do things differently.

2. Cost of Governance. Apparently there is no clear consensus as to whether Louisville saved money by merging city and county. We shouldn’t be misled or deterred by that outcome. In my mind there is no question that greater Hartford would save money, because we would merge eight governments into one, not two into one. It’s quite likely that a fully implemented merger would save at least five percent, or over $75 million per year.

Comparing budget data is difficult and requires more detailed analysis than I have done, but it appears that the total cost of government in Louisville’s merged government, including education, is about $2.6 billion for over 600,000 people. The total cost of government for Hartford and seven surrounding towns, about 300,000 people, is $1.6 billion. That is, government in Louisville costs about $4,333 per person. For Hartford and seven towns it’s $5,333 per person. Government costs 20% more in greater Hartford than Louisville, and some portion of that excess is certainly due to the inefficiency of running eight governments.

Whatever Louisville’s experience, greater Hartford has a clear dollars and cents reason to merge city and towns.

3. This Takes Time. The people of Louisville didn’t have all the answers when they started. They started nevertheless. They failed at the polls twice, regrouped, and got the merger approved. It took over 20 years from start to finish. It’s now 16 years since the merger became effective, and the dust is finally settling.

People in Hartford should have started 25 years ago. We don’t have all the answers but like Louisville, we can figure them out as we go. If we start today, it might be 2040 before we get it done. Every year we postpone starting is another year that we and our children will be living in an inefficient and expensive community.

Other cities have dealt with this problem. It’s time that the citizens of greater Hartford get to work.

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