When I suggest to people that Hartford should merge with eight or ten towns to make a true mid-sized city, they tell me it’s too complicated, it can’t happen. They say we need small steps first, by looking for opportunities to consolidate services.

To that I say “no. No! NO!!!”

What’s wrong with small steps? It’s easier to ask what isn’t wrong with small steps.

First, small steps take too long. Similar sized metro areas across the country have a huge head start – twenty, thirty or more years – in aggressive and thoughtful economic development for their regions. They’ve been solving post-World War II social problems as single communities for fifty years. Greater Hartford continues to live in and operate with insular towns that do not cooperate, do not plan together, do not even think of themselves as being in this together. Small steps will change that situation in a century, if that — and we don’t have a century. Other cities are growing; Hartford isn’t.

Look, Hartford and the surrounding towns can’t figure out how to have one 911 emergency calling system, despite the obvious need. They work on it, but they can’t get there. Hartford and West Hartford can’t even agree on one parking app for their towns; they decided they needed two separate systems. At that pace, and with that kind of decision making, how long do you think it’s going to take for great Hartford to have a comprehensive, integrated service sharing environment? Too long.

Second, developing arrangements for sharing services perpetuates and further complicates the problem with our current structure. Separate towns doing things separately is inefficient. When they come together to share services, like educational services, fire services, 911 services, they create a commission to manage the shared service. That commission has representatives from the various communities, and those representatives negotiate the work to be done based on their town’s priorities and the political interests of each town’s leadership. Essentially, each shared service is managed by another mini-government. Shared services fracture governance. One of the benefits of having a large, integrated city government is that decision making is centralized and streamlined. All the services answer to one mayor, once council.

Look at CRCOG, the Capitol Region Council of Governments. I hate to say this, because CRCOG operates with smart, dedicated staff, and those people work in the trenches every day to find solutions to difficult issues. But let’s face it: the promise of CRCOG is empty. It’s empty precisely because CRCOG is itself the grandest of small steps and shared services. It is an attempt to bring towns together without offending anyone, an attempt to bring all the towns together while preserving their autonomy. Well, CRCOG is proof that shared services isn’t getting us where we need to go – it’s been at it for thirty or forty years, and what has it done? Plenty, but not much that has brought us together. And don’t blame the people who work at CRCOG; they’re working with two hands tied behind their backs.

We already have some shared services. We have the Metropolitan District Commission, a shared water and sewer service. We have the Capitol Region Education Council. Who runs the MDC and CREC? How does the community control the MDC and CREC? Ask Bloomfield residents, who learned just how difficult it is to wrestle with the MDC over the water bottling plant. Independent commissions established to run shared services take on lives of their own, and they, just like our current towns, have no compelling interest to work with other governmental entities – protecting their own turf becomes paramount.

Shared services isn’t the answer. Shared services is at best a band-aid and at worst an argument made by people who seek to protect their political self-interest by creating a structure within which they can exercise power to protect what they have. One government responsible for all services is the answer. We need one city delivering services, not ten towns.

We are 350,000 people living within 160 square miles. There are fifteen or twenty other communities in the United States of similar population and area, and practically every one of them operates within one centralized government, not with ten autonomous towns and a crazy-quilt of shared services. They have one board of education, not ten plus CREC.

Connecticut’s municipal governance structure was born in the Eighteenth Century, and it was a great system for the era. If it were a great system today, every similar metropolitan area in the country would be governed like Hartford.

It’s simple. There’s a better way to govern ourselves, and time’s awastin’. Let’s create one government for greater Hartford and get this community moving.


  1. Conceptually, I agree with you and your analysis of the peculiarities of what we call greater Hartford (especially geography) as outlined in your “Outlier” blog. I also agree with you that separate governing boards for each shared service is costly and a political nightmare. I think we should reconsider the 1957 decision to eliminate county government. As you correctly note in Outliers, an elected board in whatever is established as the county would not be controlled by Hartford. My city would be less than a third of its constituents. Hartford’s taxable grand list is about the same size as West Hartford’s and the combined incorporated towns vastly out weigh Hartford’s s tax base. I suspect Hartford and West Hartford’s professional fire service, if re-deployed, would serve the needs of all the likely constituent towns in the new county. Dial a ride, social services, probate courts and many other services could be cost and efficiency effective if combined. Politically, so long as the new county government doesn’t try to bite off too much, I think you could fashion a concept that might get people to overcome the state constitutional right to maintain our crazy system of 169 independent municipalities. And there would be only one body overseeing the combined effort.

  2. One old case history that still burns: Manchester has two fire districts, the Town and the 8th District, with coverage divided roughly south and north. After a 7-2 charter revision commission vote favoring consolidation, voters in the 8th District turned consolidation down. This all took place in the eighties as best I can recall.

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