Thursday, May 05, 2005

Hartford: Demand for Services Outstrips Revenue

Growing Budget Gap could Cripple City

We hear a lot of talk about urban renewal, especially in Hartford. Downtown revitalization was, at least for a time, on everybody's mind, and it's sure to come to the fore again when the mammoth new convention center opens this summer, and when the construction of new residential towers where the Civic Center Mall once stood really starts moving along.

It's easy and reassuring to believe that new construction and a little tweaking of the parking authority will fix the problems facing the capital city. It's soothing to think that the worst is finally over for Hartford, that the free-fall begun forty years ago has at last come to an end, and that Hartford is, as the signs say, "New England's Rising Star," if only because there's nowhere to go but up from here.

For the 120,000 or so legal residents of the city, this is far from the truth. Hartford has a lot further to fall, if predictions about the city budget are any indication:

Thanks to an 8 percent tax hike [Hartford Mayor Eddie] Perez has proposed, the revenue and expense lines are joined at present, but they soon spread apart, with spending expected to exceed taxes and other revenues by more than $25 million next year, in part because of a $5 million dip in revenues. The gap nearly doubles to $48 million in 2007-2008. (Rinde)

Hartford's income can't meet the needs of its citizens--this is obvious. Why is this happening? Here are some reasons:

--A drop in state aid to cities and towns is partly to blame, but this is the least of Hartford's worries.
--A huge drop in property values means that less revenue is coming in to the city. This has been an ongoing problem for decades.
--People are leaving. Hartford's population has been falling dramatically, losing about 20,000 residents between 1990 and today. Hartford is now slightly smaller than New Haven and much smaller than Bridgeport, both of which have managed to stem their population losses for the time being.
--Businesses are leaving. WFSB's upcoming flight to Rocky Hill is just the latest example of a Hartford corporation abandoning the city for the suburbs.
--Hartford's relatively small land area (17.3 sq. miles) means that very little new development that doesn't involve massive and expensive demolition and clearing can be done. Most developers aren't interested.

Couple this with the fact that the need for services is increasing, especially as the population becomes more and more marginalized, and the picture becomes depressingly clear. Hartford and other cities like it are in deep, deep trouble.

Quick, gaudy fixes like a convention center or glitzy new apartments don't address this problem--in fact, they may make it worse. So what can be done?

Hartford is surrounded by some of the richest towns in the state: West Hartford borders the capital city while the wealthy Farmington Valley is just a few miles away. Is regionalization of some services the answer? I can't imagine that Avon and Simsbury would ever go for such a thing, but West Hartford, East Hartford, Wethersfield, Newington, Windsor and Bloomfield might. The regionalization of police, fire and ambulence services could benefit everyone involved. A combined bureaucracy and a pooling of resources could save money and time. The same is true of a regionalized school district, in which students would have a lot more freedom of movement and schools wouldn't be entirely shackled to the vagaries of insular town budget processes (Windsor is an example of how a suburban district can be ruined by an extremely tight anti-tax monetary policy).

In reality, the borders between the city and the towns surrounding it are increasingly meaningless anyway. A lot of the commercial and industrial functions of the city have spread into the suburbs, and the entire region is bound together into a single interdependent economy. Politically, city and suburbs have found they must increasingly work together in order to make progress and address tough issues that spill across borders. The Capital Region Council of Governments is one way in which this is happening.

Like it or not, regionalism is already happening. Maybe it's time to take the next steps, to save a vital urban core from sinking completely into debt and chaos.

Rinde, Meir. "The Coming Storm." Hartford Advocate 5 May 2005.


dumbruss said...

Any "fix" will need to be mandated by the state. I guarantee you that no town will want to throw its lot in with Hartford on any subject even if it stands to lose money, because of the stigma attached to doing so.

Genghis Conn said...


You're probably right. But since Hartford's problems increasingly are spilling over the city borders, surrounding towns might feel more inclined towards increased regionalization.

Or, more likely, they'll just do as they always have done, which is to shut their eyes very tightly and hope it all goes away.

dumbruss said...

I personally was thinking they would consider building a very high wall with checkpoints leading in and out of the city. lol.

Of course, I'm kidding, but I think that metaphorically this describes the attitude that most urban suburbs have towards their neighbor cities like Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain, etc.

I think that in fact that this is a central rule of Connecticut politics. A local politician would be committing suicide by agreeing to do anything with Hartford (for example), even if it was a good policy decision, simply because they allowed the stigma of Hartford to be attached to them. With this in mind, Hartford's leaders would be better off running directly to the capital and asking for assistance from the state as opposed to their neighbors.

Genghis Conn said...

I imagine that suburban distrust of the larger cities plays a role in the fact that very few large-city mayors ever become governor. DeStefano and Malloy might run in to this trouble (DeStefano especially, considering how negatively New Haven is viewed).

I think it will take a major crisis for cities and their immediate suburbs to work more closely together, which is a shame.