It’s been a bad few weeks for the state’s capital city. Aetna, long the business bulwark of the one-time Insurance Capital of the World, announced in late June that they will move their headquarters to Manhattan. And now the state’s ongoing budget impasse may mean much-needed aid to cash-strapped Hartford doesn’t materialize.
What happens next is up to all of us to decide.
Hartford’s government, if you haven’t heard, is teetering on the edge of insolvency. Mayor Luke Bronin, who has been sounding the alarm on Hartford’s dire financial situation since his election in 2015, is warning the state that the city won’t be able to pay its bills next year if the state doesn’t agree on some kind of rescue package.
Sadly, the legislature is currently engaged in not agreeing on a state budget, meaning it could be a long, long time before Hartford’s pain is eased.
Hartford’s options are very limited. Bronin has worked to get the city’s finances in order, but the cost of pensions and existing debt, among other things, are dragging Hartford down.
Without state aid and absent some sort of fiscal miracle, Bronin’s only option may be bankruptcy. This would not just make Hartford a national laughingstock — again — but it would be a serious blow to a city and a state trying to make the case that we are, no really, a stable environment for business to flourish in.
Bridgeport famously tried to declare bankruptcy in 1991, only to have their petition shot down by the courts. They ended up under the control of a state financial oversight board instead, and stayed there until 1995. But other cities, most notoriously Detroit, have sought bankruptcy protection. While Detroit has since emerged from bankruptcy, the stigma of a broke city with a bleak future remains.
That’s a hard burden to bear for a major city like Detroit. For Hartford, I feel it would undo the meager progress of the last decade, and consign the city back to the misery of the 1990s.
State assistance of some kind, therefore, is the most viable way forward. So how does that happen?
The state can do a couple of things. For example, in the past the state can and has provided loans or grants in return for state oversight.
State financial oversight boards were created for several cities, including Bridgeport and Waterbury, as a condition of state aid. These boards had varying powers, but they could approve or reject the budget, set tax rates, review and approve/reject all bond issuances, and oversee collective bargaining contracts. They sometimes had the power to force both sides in contract disputes to binding arbitration, where they served as the arbitration board.
The city of Springfield, Mass., was placed under the control of a state financial board in 2004, and that board’s powers were even greater. They were empowered to reorganize city government, hire and fire city employees, and approve contracts. The board essentially ran the city for five years, handing back control in 2009 after the city’s financial situation was stable.
A powerful state oversight board like this could turn out to be a blessing for Hartford, but more is needed to ensure the city’s future financial health. Pensions and debt desperately need restructuring, and a financial control board could be empowered to do so. The board could act as the city manager once did, as an unelected, independent administrator.
The state can help in other ways, as well. Because so much of the city’s property is untaxable government buildings, and the city lacks land to develop more of a property tax base, Hartford needs the ability to raise money from the suburbanites who flock downtown to enjoy the night life or go to artistic and sporting events. A portion of sales and event taxes should go to the city. Hartford also needs to be better compensated by the state for the land it uses.
I’m sure suburban residents and lawmakers are wondering, though, why they should bother. The entire state is in serious trouble, and money to towns will be slashed no matter what happens with the budget.
The suburbs do need to take responsibility for isolating Hartford and creating an island of concentrated poverty. But there’s another answer: Hartford is more than just a city. It’s Connecticut’s heart, our capital and our center. It’s the state’s transportation, government, and financial hub, and the Connecticut city people from elsewhere are most likely to know.
All of our cities deserve our support, but we must make sure we help our capital in its hour of need. Why? It’s simple: as Hartford goes, so does Connecticut.
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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