It’s not as if we don’t have enough to worry about in my corner of the state. Good-paying unskilled jobs are scarce, thanks to the lack of manufacturing and the predominance of the service-sector economy. Towns struggle to fund essential services and repair infrastructure because of a shrinking tax base and an equally dwindling stream of aid from the state.
Now along comes a study by the Northwest Community Foundation that predicts the population of northwest Connecticut will drop by about 10 percent between now and 2040, or a loss of almost 10,000 people.
The Northwest Corner, as defined by the foundation, comprises 20 of the 26 municipalities in Litchfield County, which as of the 2016 census estimate had fewer than 183,000 people living within its borders.
The only comfort we can take is we’re not alone. Towns across rural Connecticut are losing population, owing mostly to low birth rates, out-migration and the exodus of young people looking for opportunity elsewhere. The latter will no doubt add to the ongoing decline in the number of available and experienced workers to power the economy.
And over the last 10 years, enrollment in public schools across the state has declined by 6 percent or nearly 36,000 students. And over the next nine years, projections call for us to lose another 13 percent or 70,300 students.
Back in the Northwest Corner, the study also predicts that along with the drop in the young and the middle-aged will come “an explosion in the number of seniors” — a 62 percent increase in those over 65 by 2040. It goes without saying that the graying of the Northwest Corner will pose a threat to the labor pool and put a serious strain on social services, elder transport, and healthcare resources.
This trend does not necessarily mean the near-death of the economy — or at least not in the Northwest Corner. Notwithstanding the population losses, there aren’t a lot of empty housing units. When full-time homeowners decide to move out, if they don’t find a local buyer, they cash out and sell to a New Yorker who pays an inflated price and uses the home as a rural pied-à-terre — or perhaps demolishes the structure and puts up a McMansion.
Those part-time residents in turn have certain needs. As a result, one of the few elements of the economy that performs reliably well is the service sector that caters to part-time residents: building contractors, landscapers and upscale restaurants. And of course there are plenty of art galleries, nail spas, and massage therapists favored by the wealthy. But there is nary a Walmart insight unless you’re willing to drive to Torrington.
The hollowing out of the population in rural Connecticut will no doubt lead to increased calls for regional government to give small towns economies of scale and political strength in numbers.
There have been calls, most notably by former state Sen. Gary LeBeau of East Hartford, for a return to county government. I’m not convinced this is the answer. What we need to do is share services.
And rural and even some portions of suburban Connecticut have done just that. There are, for example, at least 18 regional school districts in Connecticut comprising two or more towns.
I live in a district that was formed by a special act of the General Assembly in 1937. It’s not only the first regional district in Connecticut but the first in New England (hence the formal name “Regional School District Number One”). It serves all of six towns in the state’s far Northwest Corner. Since education typically accounts for two-thirds of municipal spending, we’re talking about substantial savings here.
Since the 1970s, the towns of Salisbury and Sharon have shared an award-winning transfer station that is not only efficiently run, but has one of the highest recycling rates in the state. A similar regional trash and recycling facility serves three towns near Winsted.
My town, Salisbury, belongs to the Torrington Area Health District, which enforces state regulations dealing with septic systems, wells, food inspections, and other environmental health mandates, to 137,000 people in 17 towns and one city spread out over 611 square miles. That’s a lot of territory.
And unlike in Massachusetts, where county government has also essentially disappeared, small towns in Connecticut do not have their own police forces. We either make do on our own or contract police services through the resident state trooper program.
In other words, we in rural portions of the state are doing our part in sharing services and becoming more efficient, though admittedly we’re not finished. Now maybe it’s time for the cities and suburbs to step up and further regionalize their schools and perhaps consolidate police departments. And it sounds like that is happening.
Earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Council of Small Towns, a panel discussion moderated by CTNewsJunkie Editor Christine Stuart focused on fiscal woes and how to address them. Political leaders, some of whom come from larger towns, bandied about some ideas for the sharing of non-educational services, including police dispatch and animal control.
If those ideas ever come to fruition, they will no doubt help. But if population trends continue, further regionalization of schools will have to occur someday. We can’t continue with almost 200 districts. There are models to look at. With the exception of the city of Baltimore, Maryland’s school district borders all follow county lines — and there are only 24 of them in state of more than 6 million people.
So we either think outside the box or education becomes prohibitively expensive. I’d say that’s a pretty easy choice.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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