Would the Hartford region be better off with one large core city of, say, 300,000 people than the current municipal structure of a small city surrounded by ten independent towns, each with its own government? And would it be so much better that it would be worth the disruption and expense of making the change?
I think the answer to that question is “yes,” but I’ll admit the correct answer isn’t immediately obvious. I’ve devoted a few essays to the question. Earlier essays on the subject included a discussion of what I called the human cultural laboratory and a discussion of the cost savings we could realize. This essay discusses how merged towns would provide us with better services.
Face it: in general, bigger and consolidated is better. That’s why so many human institutions get bigger. We have better, more reliable energy in towns across America because we have an international energy grid. We have better entertainment and communications services because we have a world-wide communications network. We have better automobiles because of an international automobile industry. We are developing treatment and prevention for COVID-19 rapidly because we have large public and private pharmaceutical institutions that combine human and financial capital. To be sure, there are compromises when things get bigger, but it isn’t a coincidence that the advance of human civilization has occurred side-by-side with the growth of human institutions.
The countries of Europe, separated by distinct histories, languages and cultures, recognized the benefits of consolidation when they formed the European Union.
Within a decade after the conclusion of the War for Independence, Americans could see that 13 loosely confederated states could not prosper nearly so well as 13 states united under a stronger central government. Why? Because under a centralized government, commerce would be promoted, interstate competition would be discouraged and freedom could be preserved and protected.
Connecticut towns never moved on from their equivalent of the Articles of Confederation – they call it CRCOG, and we all know it isn’t working.
What services provided by government in the greater Hartford area would be better if they were combined under one organization? Probably just about all of them. Emergency services, for one. Simply by having truly consolidated communications and dispatch systems across what is now 10 or 15 separate systems, including one consolidated 9-1-1 system, we’d all be served better. Training could be improved. Duplications of basic equipment could be reduced, facilitating the acquisition of more advanced equipment that could be shared across the region.
Consolidated, technology-driven operations in the offices of town clerks, assessors’ offices, building inspection and engineering and similar services all would be enhanced. Why? Because small-town systems of all kinds are demonstrably less efficient and less useful. Small organizations tend to buy less than the state of the art when it comes to technology, because state-of-the-art technology is expensive. Large organizations buy the state of the art, because large towns can spread the greater cost across more people and more users. A few weeks ago I invited readers to compare (a) the web page and information that the City of New Orleans provides about COVID-19 to (b) the web pages our various towns provide. Our towns are way behind. Forget about the cost savings – just consider whether you’d prefer that your town had a more functional website, a better telephone system, better communications with citizens.
Consolidation also would result in more skilled and productive municipal employees. Why? Because the consolidated city would offer higher paying and more interesting and challenging professional opportunities.
Consider the position of superintendent of schools. Which position would the best national superintendent candidates prefer? (1) a district with four high schools, ten elementary schools and annual budget crises or (2) a district with12 high schools, 40 elementary schools and a budget that allows a meaningful opportunity to meet the needs of students? The City of Hartford offers option (1). Most metropolitan areas the size of greater Hartford offer option (2). Option (2) also is what greater Hartford would offer if it merged with the contiguous towns. The best candidates go to all the options (2) around the country; Hartford gets what’s left, and our suburban towns don’t compete at all for national talent. Talent rises, and the best talent rises right past greater Hartford to metropolitan areas of the same size.
It’s not just at the board of education; the best talent bypasses Hartford and the towns in just about all areas of municipal governance. Bigger is consistently better and by being divided into separate municipalities, greater Hartford makes itself artificially small and less attractive to the best managers at all levels.
Big government certainly isn’t perfect, but big government can deliver better services than small government.