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OP-ED | Of ‘Old Yankee Boundaries’ And Revenue Shortfalls

by | Sep 30, 2016 5:30am
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Posted to: Analysis, Education, Equality, Opinion, Taxes

Few things get the old Yankee blood boiling faster than talk of regionalization — especially in Connecticut, where we essentially have a long history of government that includes only state and municipal.

Even when we had county government, which was eliminated by an act of the General Assembly in 1957 amid numerous documented cases of corruption and patronage, the counties had few obligations and no direct taxing authority.

So eyebrows were raised when Hartford urban planner Toni Gold penned an op-ed for the Courant last week complaining of the “inequity and inefficiency — the Yankee values of our hallowed town system.”

Gold blames a lack of regional government for the state of near-bankruptcy of Connecticut’s largest cities and for the “massive fiscal problems” of the state itself. Apparently inspired to write the piece by a recent action by the judicial branch, Gold further alluded to “the inequality of educational outcomes” cited by Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher in a controversial and blistering opinion earlier this month.

Gold is at her best when she identifies inefficiencies caused by a lack of regionalism: individual school districts, police, fire, and public works departments even in relatively small towns.

We’ve already accomplished many of these efficiencies in the bucolic Northwest Corner. We have the oldest regional school district in New England, for example, established by a special act of the General Assembly in 1937 and serving six towns. And throughout the state there are regional vocational-technical schools and about 20 regional school districts. But for the most part, these individual districts serve the same types of rural and outer-suburban towns and they have similar demographics and educational outcomes, while Gold emphasizes the disparities between cities and their wealthier adjacent suburbs.

There are also regional waste authorities, health districts, and councils of governments throughout the state. The State Police functions as a regional police force for smaller towns, offering a resident trooper program in lieu of lots of tiny town police departments.

I must take issue with Gold’s insistence that “the snipping of a state into a lot of minuscule towns is not what the rest of the country does.” First of all, virtually all the New England states do it. Rhode Island got rid of county government before Reconstruction, Massachusetts has only a few vestiges of county government left such as jail management. Furthermore, counties in the Bay State have no taxing authority and are essentially divisions of the state government. And most of the other New England states have weak county governments, if any.

So why is Hartford going bankrupt, while fellow capital city Boston, with so much of its land off the tax rolls, is on comparatively firm financial footing? Well, if you think lack of funding for cities is the problem in the absence of regional government, Massachusetts has found a way to get more money to cash-strapped municipalities and boost its schools’ ratings higher than Connecticut, while spending substantially less per student.

The Bay State allows municipalities to enact local taxes on meals in restaurants and hotel room stays. And a proposal before lawmakers on Beacon Hill would allow cities and towns to enact their own per-gallon gasoline taxes. Dozens of cities across the nation have their own income taxes for those who live or work there. If you work in the Capital City and go back to Avon or Glastonbury every night, perhaps you owe a little something to Hartford beyond what you spend on lunch?

There are many ways to get money to our cities and struggling schools without adding yet another layer of government to the mix. Now it’ll be difficult to convince members of the General Assembly that they need to cede some powers of taxation to the cities and towns. After all, the lawmakers derive their power from controlling the purse strings. But if a prosperous neighboring state is allowing it and it reduces our reliance on municipal property taxes, then perhaps Connecticut lawmakers can be convinced.

The reform of the state’s Educational Cost Sharing formulas and more regional school districts among diverse sets of towns and cities might also address some of the disparities in funding and outcomes outlined by Judge Moukawsher, according to Connecticut Voices for Children and Gold, while achieving the efficiencies we all want.

There are hundreds of entire counties in United States that are larger in area — and four larger in population — than all of Connecticut. The notion that we need to reorganize our state into even smaller pieces — or consolidate school districts by county, as Maryland does — is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Probably the only way it could be accomplished, as Gold suggests, would be by order of the Supreme Court of the United States. Now try to picture the highest court in the land ordering Connecticut, whose schools ranked sixth in the nation in the latest Education Week survey, to change its school district boundaries.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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