The municipal governmental system in the Hartford area is a serious impediment to the growth and success, maybe even the survival, of Hartford as a viable community. In terms of lifestyle, Hartford is great today, but the greatness that was Hartford’s past is, well, past. Hartford isn’t the financial capital it was in the 19th Century, it isn’t the insurance capital it was in the 20th Century, the manufacturing base of the 19th and 20th Centuries is gone. If Hartford is going to become economically vital again, something has to change.
I believe the Hartford region needs employment growth and income growth. That means employers have must choose to relocate to Hartford from someplace else and that entrepreneurs must choose to start their businesses here. And I believe that (1) the cost of living, (2) our over-taxed and over-regulated economy and (3) our antiquated municipal governance structure are the primary impediments to employers making the decision to move or to start in the Hartford region.
The cost of living is tough to control. We live in an expensive region of the country. Why is it expensive? Because it’s desirable, that’s why. We love it here. You know the reasons. Sure, we can reduce taxes a bit, but in general we can’t control the markets for goods and services. We can’t do much about the cost of living.
Over-taxed and over-regulated? I think so, but I’m open to being persuaded otherwise. In any case, I can’t see an easy solution. More to the point, I’m not interested in writing about it.
Our antiquated municipal governance structure, on the other hand, is something we can fix. We live in communities of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people, each with a more or less totally separate governance structure. We have an underfunded core city where our poor and our homeless live. With the exception of Bridgeport, no other similarly sized metropolitan area in the country governs itself in any way that remotely resembles Hartford. (Well, there’s Providence – proximity to Boston makes it exceptional. And there’s Salt Lake City, but it’s a unique case.) Why don’t other cities do what we do? Because it’s a stupid way to organize a significant metropolitan area. We didn’t choose it so much as inherit it from a simpler time, and no one ever bothered to change it.
So what should the Hartford region do?
We should start over. Start with a blank slate. Really. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can create any governance structure we want. All that is stopping us is inertia, self-interest and politics.
Start over. Let’s sit in a room, or maybe a lot of rooms, and ask ourselves this question: If we were to wake up tomorrow, living where we live today, among these same million or so people as our neighbors, and there were NO GOVERNMENT AND NO TOWN BOUNDARIES, what would we do? How would we organize?
Well, I think the FIRST thing we would conclude is that we’re not going to recreate the present structure. Why? Because based on almost any rational examination, we would conclude that having ten or twenty municipalities govern a million people is too expensive, too inefficient and too unfair to too many people. We’d put the present structure in the rear-view mirror and hit the gas like we were escaping the Bates Motel.
The next thing we would decide is that we should have a large core city governed, administered, taxed and promoted to the rest of the country as one place, not ten or twenty. Why would we decide that? Because that’s what all the other similarly sized metropolitan areas around the country do, all those metropolitan areas that are economically vibrant and are growing. Eighteenth Century America was the time and place for small towns, selectmen, probate judges who live down the street, and communities distinct from the next town over. Twenty-first Century America is the time and place for big cities, centralized urban management and growth. Simple as that.
What does a large core city look like in this region? I’ll tell you mine; you can make up your own. Mine is one city comprised of what we currently know as Hartford, Windsor, Bloomfield, West Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield and East Hartford. About 140 square miles and about 340,000 people. Throw in South Windsor and Glastonbury if you’d like. That’s about the size and population of core cities of similarly sized metropolitan areas around the country.
Or maybe use the river as a boundary, and let East Hartford, South Windsor, Glastonbury and Manchester form their own city. If I were those towns, I’d be scrambling to get on board with my siblings across the river, but that’s up to them.
If Farmington and Avon want to join the party, great.
Want to talk about New Britain? Okay, let’s talk.
Really, anything is better than what we have now.
Am I serious? Yes, I am. Why not make a modern city out of this place, instead of a government that looks like eastern Europe in the 19th Century? Why not have one police department instead of ten, one school board instead of ten, one parks and recreation department instead of ten? Why not have one of EVERYTHING instead of ten? Why not have ALL of us in greater Hartford get serious about how to run ALL of greater Hartford? The rest of the country has been doing it this way for a century or more; we will be late to the party, but people will sit up and take notice when we show up.
Why will the rest of the country take notice if we start over? Because most of the metropolitan areas our size know they can’t compete with us. Located where we are, with the talent that lives here, with the wealth that’s here, with the resources, including water, that’s here, Hartford should be a powerhouse mid-sized American city. Those other cities are happy that Hartford is currently so disorganized that we can’t compete with them.
I know it’s likely that most of the people reading these words are thinking the same thing: “It can’t be done. Not here.”
And to that I say, “why not?” It’s complicated, for sure, but smart human beings can do complicated. We figure out how to merge corporations that employ hundreds of thousands of people, why can’t we figure out how to merge towns that govern hundreds of thousands? Corporations that merge figure out what will be done before the merger becomes effective and what will be done after, as well as how they will operate while the merging is going on. We can merge towns the same way. The separate police departments, the separate fire departments, the separate everythings will become one according to a plan and a timetable that smart people figure out. Smart people is one of Hartford’s most valuable natural resources, and we have them in abundance.
There are a lot of details, to be sure. Probably some state laws will have to change. It shouldn’t be hard to get enough legislators on board, because once Hartford starts down this path, New Haven and Bridgeport likely will want to follow. Why? Because they will see the enormous competitive advantage Hartford will gain by merging, and they will want the same thing.
Thousands or millions of details, but details are just details. They can be mastered, one by one. We’ll make some mistakes along the way, because we’re human, but when we make a mistake, we’ll fix it, because we’re human. Or we’ll live with it. Whatever we come up with will be better than what we have.
It can’t be harder than sending people to the moon and back. We don’t need rocket scientists to merge Hartford and the surrounding towns. We just have to get to work.
We need only one thing to start over and do it right: We need the people in this community to understand that starting over and building the city we want is the right thing to do. The right thing to do for us and for our children.