OP-ED | Fix Disparities Between Towns by Bringing Borders Down
Connecticut Magazine recently mapped out car tax rates by town, and Hartford came in as the highest by far. All of the cities do poorly, because they rely heavily on those taxes to fund government in places with a high demand for services, while wealthier towns with lower demands for services have lower property and car taxes. This is yet another reason why the system of 169 separate incorporated towns we have now is utterly broken.
Imagine a Connecticut city that wasn’t a postage stamp. Hartford is only 17 square miles, one of the smaller cities in the country. Bridgeport and New London are smaller still. The geographical size of New England’s cities is a hindrance, one which in turn hurts the whole region.
Let’s suppose, just as a thought experiment, that Hartford combined with the surrounding “ring” suburbs of West Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, East Hartford, Windsor and Bloomfield. The new city would immediately be larger and wealthier, with a far better tax base, a wealth of school choices, and better infrastructure. It would be a more attractive place to live, work, and found a business.
I know a lot of people will immediately hate this idea, but why? What are the arguments against a bigger, better Hartford?
It would be too big. A combination of these seven towns would have a land area of 138.52 square miles. That kind of size, while huge for New England, is hardly unheard of for an American city. An expanded Hartford would be just about the size of Mobile, AL (139 sq. mi.), Chattanooga, TN (137 sq. mi.), or Detroit, MI (138 sq. mi.).
There wouldn’t be the population density to justify a city. Hartford’s population density now is 7,179 persons per square mile, which is about the same as Seattle. Add in the surrounding towns, and the population density drops to 2,297 per square mile. This is right about the density of Tucson (2,294 per sq. mi.) or Indianapolis (2,270 per sq. mi.).
It doesn’t fit in with our history of small, entirely separate incorporated towns. True. Good! This system works well when towns are small and relatively well-off. But does it work for, say, tiny Central Falls, RI? Or Bridgeport?
People will leave. Everyone says this, but why would they?
People don’t want to live in Hartford. They live in West Hartford now. Why would they leave if it became part of the city next door?
Because! Hartford has a corrupt city government run by Democrats who will bring in the unions and we’ll all suffer and businesses will leave. But people who live in the new city would have a say in how it’s run. If you live in Newington now, your vote wouldn’t be taken away.
There would be crime and drugs and the schools would go downhill! The city people would bring it with them. I moved here to get away from all that! Now, at last, we’ve come to the real reason why our antiquated system of separate towns with very firm and inflexible borders still exists.
We like fences. We like them because we can clearly mark what’s ours, but better yet we can keep those people from coming into our territory. For example, when the state tries to open a group home or a shelter in wealthy towns with mostly white residents, the outcry can be heard all the way from Hartford. The familiar cries of “Quality of life!” “Crime!” and “Drugs!” all pretty much boil down to: “those people will ruin everything if we let them in.”
As Twitter user @CTMQ noted:
I'll beat this drum until I die: CT's 169 independent town structure is detrimental, unfair, classist, racist, stupid & profligate.— Stephen Wood (@CTMQ) August 1, 2013
Our system actively encourages the creation of concentrated pockets of poverty, which, because of institutional racism, often means concentrations of racial minorities as well. It shouldn’t be a surprise that cities with large, poor populations, neglected neighborhoods, and a high demand for services have high taxes and fiscal problems, especially if they are surrounded by towns that often try to zone these things out.
Maybe this isn’t the answer. But we owe it to ourselves to try to tear down some of the barriers between towns. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey’s MORE Commission is a good start, but must go further. There’s no good reason for school districts to be so separate, for instance.
Hartford, and Central Connecticut, can be wildly successful. There’s energy, creativity, education, money and so much more here. But we have to tear these fences down if we want to give ourselves a chance.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.