Earlier this month, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin called for financial relief for his beleaguered, cash-strapped city from the state and from neighboring towns. He is absolutely correct to do so. It’s time for the whole region, which draws enormous benefit from the presence of the city, to lift Hartford up. The same should be said for cities like New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and their surrounding communities.
But Hartford’s in bad shape at the moment, even more so than usual. The city’s budget deficit is huge, and there are few options for closing the gap that wouldn’t cause an awful lot of pain. Raising taxes is nearly impossible — Hartford’s citizens and companies already pay the highest property tax rate in the state at a staggering 74.29 mills. And since the state doesn’t allow municipalities to enact any other sort of tax, such as hotel or entertainment taxes, and the city can’t simply run a massive deficit like the federal government, options are very few.
That’s where the rest of the region comes in. Mayor Bronin hasn’t settled on what kind of support there should be, though it could take the shape of shared dispatch services, shared libraries, regional fire services, or some other form of regional department. This is what regionalism is: the sharing of resources across town lines to save money.
Oh, but this is going to be an unpopular idea in the suburbs. Share with Hartford? No! No way! Hartford dug its own grave! Hartford’s always been badly run! Democrats ran the city into the ground! They need to get their house in order! Not one dime of my tax money for that awful crime-ridden place! And so on.
And there we get to the heart of the problem: many who live outside the city both fear and despise it. There are people who think Hartford is nothing but a home for drug addicts and criminals, that it’s a lost cause not worth lifting a finger to help. There are also people who are constantly terrified of the “problems” of Hartford spreading to their town.
This view is grounded in history: specifically, in the rapid flight of white residents to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the suburban stereotypes about Hartford are the ghosts of old racial anxieties.
Suburbanites must get past that. Hartford is the reason why the region exists at all. Hartford is our hub, it’s our urban heart. It’s the financial, cultural, political, and transportation nexus for the 800,000 people who live in Hartford County. Without Hartford and its creaky but mighty economic engine, our region would be just a bunch of middling suburban towns.
The region owes Hartford, not just because the city is our anchor and the ultimate source for so many of our livelihoods, but because it also serves as the suburbs’ dumping ground. Suburbs don’t want addiction clinics, they don’t want homeless shelters, they don’t want affordable housing, and they don’t want halfway houses. So where do all those things end up? The city.
The region has been offloading its problems onto Hartford for generations while still taking advantage of the cultural and entertainment the city offers. Who is going to use the new ballpark north of downtown? Who goes to the bars on Asylum Street? Who goes to the XL Center and the Wadsworth? It’s not just city residents.
Hartford is constrained by old stereotypes, by history, and by geography — at only 17 square miles, Hartford is one of the smallest major cities by area in the country. The region obviously benefits from Hartford. It’s time for Hartford to benefit from the region. It’s time for the suburban towns to step up.
That support can take many forms. Direct financial support would be fantastic. Shared services, or even a shared school district, would be another huge benefit. It may even be time to consider merging with some of the bordering towns, such as West and East Hartford, to create a larger, more stable and more prosperous city.
Look, we live in a time of divorce. Everywhere, all across the world, people want to separate from one another, to form new nations, new states, new cities, or to reassert rights believed lost. Independence, or the dream of independence, is championed as a cure to all sorts of ills, from a lousy economy to bad governance to immigration.
But there is something grand and wonderful about working together, about finding unity instead of separation. We must tear down suspicion. We must tear down the walls that exist in our minds.
It’s time for all of us to realize the debt we owe to Hartford, and to act to make the region stronger.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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