It might help to take a few minutes to visualize the city – call it Modern Hartford – that would be created by merging current Hartford with each of the contiguous towns: East Hartford, South Windsor, Windsor, Bloomfield, West Hartford, Newington and Wethersfield. Of course, more or fewer towns might be involved, but for now let’s talk about the contiguous towns.
Modern Hartford would have boundaries that currently are some of the boundaries of each of the towns: the north side of Windsor, the north and west sides of Bloomfield, the west side of West Hartford, the west and south sides of Newington, the south side of Wethersfield, the south and east sides of East Hartford and the east and north sides of South Windsor. In other words, the map would look just like it looks today, but all of the internal boundaries between the city and the contiguous towns would be eliminated. So, for example, Prospect Street would no longer divide Hartford and West Hartford, and all of the people living on either side of Prospect, people who always have been neighbors (whether they thought so or not), would now also be fellow citizens.
Modern Hartford would cover approximately 166 square miles and would have approximately 370,000 citizens. Geographically, it would be similar in size to Raleigh, North Carolina, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Birmingham, Alabama. In terms of population, it would be similar to Indianapolis, Indiana, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Tulsa.
How would Modern Hartford be governed? That isn’t for me to decide, and there probably are three or four or a half dozen models that might make sense. Here’s one just to give us something to talk about:
Modern Hartford’s charter would include all the provisions necessary to provide for governance. The charter would create a City Council of 15 people, each council person representing one district of approximately 25,000 people. The original districts could be drawn in such a way that each of Wethersfield, Newington, Bloomfield, Windsor and South Windsor would, more or less, be a district. East Hartford and West Hartford would each be divided into two districts, and Hartford would be divided into five districts. Elmwood in the south end of West Hartford and a slice of the north end of Newington would combine to create the 15th district. (There are ways, of course, that Modern Hartford could be divided in fewer districts, but this proposal would be the way to preserve the bulk of each town as a separate district or two.)
Depending on what the charter provided, there would be a mayor or city manager who would be the Chief Executive officer of the city. The CEO would be chosen by the city council or elected by the voters of Modern Hartford, again depending on what the charter provided.
There would be a separate board of education with representatives elected from each of the council districts. That is, West Hartford and East Hartford each would have two seats on the board, other towns would have one, and Hartford would have five.
For those who say they don’t want to live in a new city governed by the current City of Hartford, they should recognize that on both the City Council and the Board of Education, the current City of Hartford would have only five of fifteen representatives. The former contiguous towns would have voting control of both boards. For those in Hartford who dislike this loss of control, they should be comforted by the fact that this structure will allow them to share in the relatively greater tax bases that exist in the contiguous towns. Citizens of the entire area also should recognize that Modern Hartford will, finally, look and function like modern cities all over the country.
When the merger became effective, citizens wouldn’t see much change. Residents almost certainly would continue to use the former town names when referencing where they live, so that saying “I live in Wethersfield” would describe a section of Modern Hartford, just as “I live in the North End” describes a section of current Hartford. Post office names might change, say, from Newington to Hartford, or might stay the same (that’s probably the Postal Service’s decision), and zip codes probably would remain the same. Phone numbers would be unchanged, trash pickup and snow plowing would continue unchanged, at least initially. The day after the merger, all of the employees of each of the towns would go to work as usual, and all the town functions would continue. Life would go on pretty much as it always had.
Over time, as Modern Hartford’s managers implemented new systems, various town functions would be merged into new, consolidated departments. As that consolidation took place, the number of municipal employees would decline. Systems of all kinds would be centralized over time, so that instead of having free-standing town payroll systems, for example, Modern Hartford would have one payroll system for all of its employees. The assessor’s office would run one system across the entire new city, building codes would be standardized, parks and recreation would be managed through one office, and snow plowing and street maintenance would be managed on a city-wide basis. Citizens who needed to visit the assessor’s office, the building department or the clerk’s office no longer would be able to do it in what used to be their town. Several of the town halls would be sold or repurposed to some Modern Hartford function. Among the economic benefits of the merger would be the revenue from such sales and the elimination of the costs of maintaining those properties and paying employees. People who might object to having to travel outside their former town for these services should recognize that (1) they don’t go to town hall very often, (2) increasingly, whatever they need is done on-line, and (3) people all over the country do it this way without any apparent problem.
Certainly in the early years after the merger, the schools would be largely unchanged. Children would continue to attend the same schools, faculties would be unchanged, curricula would remain the same. Transferring the management of the separate school systems to one Board of Education would not result in open enrollment across Modern Hartford, would not result in city-wide busing, and would not otherwise result in mass transfers of either students or teachers between schools. Whether over time something like open enrollment should be implemented would be a question for the new Board of Education. It would be reasonable to expect that some degree of redistricting eventually would take place, just as it does currently in each of the towns, in order to normalize building populations across the school system. That is, children who live near current boundaries like Bloomfield-Windsor, Wethersfield-Hartford or Newington-West Hartford might someday be redistricted to the other side of the current boundary.
Over time, as teacher contracts expired, the teachers would have a new city-wide bargaining unit and new teacher contracts would be negotiated. All the teachers throughout the city would end up under the same contract. Curricula eventually would be managed city-wide. Instead of eight Superintendents of Schools, at a current cost of over $2 million per year, we would have one. Administrative savings would be realized throughout the system, as duplicative positions and systems are eliminated.
I would guess that it would take at least five years and as many as ten years before town functions were fully rolled into a truly consolidated city government and all separately run town functions ceased. Union contracts would need to run out before new, Modern Hartford union contracts could be negotiated, trash hauling contracts would have to run out, municipal offices would have to be relocated, consolidated and streamlined.
All of what’s described above is not some new-fangled, experimental way to run a city of several hundred thousand people. I’m not suggesting we all fly off to Mars and create a brave new world that never existed before. What is described above is how everybody else in this country (and probably around the economically developed world) operates cities of this size. Everybody else does it this way because it works better than the way we’ve been doing it in greater Hartford.
When we come together, Modern Hartford will be positioned to build the kind of vibrant and economically sustainable community we all deserve.