OP-ED | Fixing Connecticut’s Cities
When the Connecticut Policy Institute launched its urban policy initiative last week, it was a shame that Democratic spokesman James Hallinan stuck to politics, instead of telling voters what Democrats will do to help residents of the state’s struggling cities.
He could have taken the high road and spoken about his party’s plans to revitalize cities like Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport that are plagued with high unemployment, and crime rates that put them on the FBI’s list of the most dangerous cities in America in their size category.
It is true that CPI was founded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, but if Hallinan would have taken the time to read the policy papers he would have found thoughtful, well-researched ideas on crime, education, housing and job growth, with policy recommendations that are straightforward and plausible.
The policies are also not about spending more — in fact they show that in many cases the state could get more by spending less. There are also several proposals on how we can spend our money smarter by measuring the effectiveness of our state and local policies.
Several cities in the U.S. have had to declare bankruptcy in the past few years — most notably Detroit — and those cities present a cautionary tale for some of our own struggling cities.
As it says in the introduction to the think tank’s policy paper on urban jobs, “Four of Connecticut’s five cities — Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury — are among the most disadvantaged areas in the United States. Each has a poverty rate above 20 percent, a child poverty rate above 35 percent, and an unemployment rate above 12 percent.”
Clearly, Connecticut has some cities that are working. Stamford is humming along, thanks in part to its proximity to New York, as is Danbury, which is run by another Republican gubernatorial hopeful, Mark Boughton.
And even for the cities that make CPI’s list, the news isn’t all bad. Hartford had its bond rating raised last week by Standard & Poor’s from A to AA-, with a stable outlook, which will allow the city to borrow money at lower interest rates.
But Hartford, like the other struggling cities, is still too dependent on the state government for funding to prop up its own anemic budget, and it is still plagued by high crime, high unemployment, and school children who are struggling to succeed.
So how do we get these cities moving and growing again? The CPI took a four-pronged approach to its policy recommendations, with suggestions on housing, economic development, education, and crime. Clearly there is overlap — if you improve one area, it is bound to positively reverberate to other areas.
One of the policy proposals put forward by CPI is to “follow the child” with education funding, which would help the state’s bottom line, but would mean less money for cities who have children busing elsewhere for school.
How it works right now is that if a child lives in Hartford but travels to West Hartford for school, both Hartford and West Hartford get money from the state for the child’s education. If you followed the child, only West Hartford would get the money.
By paying for each child only once, the state would save millions of dollars, and it might also put added pressure on urban school districts to be innovative to better meet children’s educational needs.
On housing, the policy recommendations include not building more public housing in areas that already suffer from high vacancy rates, as public building projects and public funding can distort the market and hurt private property owners.
Another housing proposal asks the state and cities to limit regulations on private investment. The rules for bidding on public projects in cities are vast, costly, and onerous. They include residency, hiring, and salary requirements that shut out competition. This short-changes taxpayers and residents.
In the CPI housing policy paper, they use an example of a low-income housing project in Hartford where the units ended up costing $239,000 each to build. The city could have spent significantly less if it bought pre-existing homes already on the market.
In Mayor Pedro Segarra’s recent state of the city address, he spoke about new housing programs to fight blight and help homeowners fix up their homes.
“Only Hartford contractors are used in the program,” he said. “And as we work to develop new programs with city funds, we will require that the businesses selected are Hartford-based and offer jobs to Hartford residents as much as possible.”
That sounds like a sensible policy, but these kinds of regulations artificially inflate prices, and can lead to cronyism and insider deals that end up hurting local taxpayers.
New Britain is another example of a city that is struggling. In her recent state of the city address, Republican Mayor Erin Stewart said her city is in a “crisis.”
What might help New Britainites is that their new mayor seems completely willing to face the reality of the city’s fiscal situation.
“Whether it has been efforts by previous administrations to avoid political hazard, or been the refusal of the unions to realize the truth that the old ways of doing business are over, or been the result of good people who don’t want to have to say ‘no’ to our friends when they want something that the city cannot afford . . . Regardless of the reason, we simply cannot continue down that same old road,” Stewart said.
That’s the kind of attitude that could get Connecticut’s cities back on track.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, New Hampshire Union Leader and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.