Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Bring Back County Government?

Revived Counties, Increased Regionalization Offered as Solutions to High Property Taxes

In 1960, Connecticut abolished its eight county governments, citing them as antiquated and redundant. Counties have been reduced to lines on a map for forty-five years. Now a group of Fairfield County politicians have proposed bringing them back.

The region's municipalities should devise a strategy to work together to leverage state government for what they need, because they're not getting it now, several area chief elected officials said Tuesday at a Greater Bridgeport Regional Business Council breakfast.
[Bridgeport Mayor John] Fabrizi believes that county government is one way to help promote regional cooperation.

A form of county government — which was abolished in 1960 — would enable towns and cities to share vital emergency management resources and streamline what can be expensive local programs, he said.

In fact, Connecticut is one of the few states without county government, putting it at odds with a federal government set up to work with — and give money to — counties.

So the state's towns and cities lose out on funding that could ease local property taxes, the officials said.

"I truly believe that [county government] is an issue that needs to be explored," Fabrizi said. (Drew)

The basic problem is that Connecticut is split up into 169 little fiefdoms, each with its own structure of services. Regionalization of some services could eliminate redundancy and help to lower high property taxes. Cities like Bridgeport, which have a high demand for services but a shrinking property tax base, would benefit the most from such an arrangement (see my earlier post for more detail: Hartford Demand for Services Outstrips Revenue).

Counties sort of work this way. However, counties' primary function is to oversee and provide services to territory that isn't governed by municipal governments. For those who have lived in New England all their lives the thought of land that isn't safely within a town border is alien, but most of the rest of the country functions this way. Incorporated towns become a rarity west of the Hudson River, replaced by a confusing (to us) tangle of counties, various classes of city, boroughs and villages.

Our counties, such as they are, probably shouldn't be revived. For one, they're just too big. Hartford County is a good example of this. What does Enfield have in common with Rocky Hill? If we are to head towards regionalized services (and possibly some sort of regional governments) they should be appropriately sized for our dense, closely-packed population. Hartford and its inner ring suburbs of Newington, West Hartford, Bloomfield, Windsor, South Windsor, East Hartford and Wethersfield could pool services, and it would make a lot of sense (you could expand the region to include New Britain and Manchester, too) because those towns are already tightly interconnected.

Secondly, county lines split communities that might otherwise work well together (like Meriden and Southington, for example). If we're going to try regionalized services, we should do it in a way that makes sense for the 21st Century instead of following lines drawn on a map three hundred years ago.

Is this an answer to our property tax problems? It could be part of one. It might be worth trying, although getting towns to surrender even an inch of their soverignty to regional governments would be difficult at best. The alternative is to watch property taxes continue to climb as the demand for services increases, with no end in sight.

Drew, Daniel. "Counties could be regional strategy." Connecticut Post 28 September, 2005.


nedweenie said...

In my ignorant view, it is certainly something to consider, given the abundant wealth and abject poverty that defines & divides our towns. I constantly laugh at the poor attempts to exhume Hartford by building luxury condos, convention centers and such. What Hartford needs is to be livable, with decent schools and services. Having the bedroom community commuters contribute might possibly help. The "Save Hartford" movement will never get off the ground unless the middle class moves back. And they're not coming back until conditions improve. No snappy jingles or luxury condos are going to accomplish that.

Genghis Conn said...

Agreed about Hartford. Ritzy projects like Adriaen's Landing and the luxury apartments that replaced the Civic Center Mall won't really fix any of the city's problems. The city needs to be safe, clean and livable before it can really be renewed.

Conn-tiki said...

I think county governments could be a good way to do what the state as a whole seems unwilling to do - spread the wealth. A government structure determined to equalize the benefits of taxation across larger areas than towns produces the most happiness for the greatest number (if one wants to use strictly utilitarian theories of government).

Regionaliztion Foe said...

I think this might eventually become part of DeStefano's platform. And it is a horribel idea.

The thought that somehow pooling resources between suburbs and citys will somehow help the poor is faulty thinking. Problems of our urban centers-- poor education, lack of jobs, crime-- will not be solved through "osmosis". If county government just redirected more resources from the suburbs to failed city program, they will still be failed city programs.

The right way to fix our city's problems is to innovate in the cities themselves. Cities like Baltimore that have revitalized have used a clear, distinctive strategy-- for them, it was renovate the harbor then give massive tax breaks to any business who moved near it. The result is a bustling harbor area that slowly is spreading prosperity into the heart of the city, as more and more businesses are attracted to the critical mass of people and other businesses there. Baltimore uses the extra money to fund education, fight poverty, etc.

We need to do the same here in CT. Bridgeport could have done this, but their attempt is half-assed and of course corrupt. New Haven has done this with their immediate downtown area, but it is still too Yale-centric (too much culture, not enough business). Hartford really hasn't capitalized on the insurance base it has left-- Adrian's Landing is nice, but won't create critical mass.

I could go on, but blogs should be short and readable. :)