Will Regionalism Ever Happen in Greater Hartford?

NOTE: This is going to be a long post, but hopefully informative. Grab a snack as you dive in…

This morning I attended a Key Issues Forum focusing on the idea of regionalism, held at the University of Hartford. The event was co-sponsored by the Courant and UHart’s Center for Integrated Design. The panel of speakers was a good balance between academics and politicians, so the discussion focused on both theory and practice.

The panelists were Lyle Wray who is the executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, Mary M. Glassman who is the First Selectwoman of Simsbury, State Representative Brendan Sharkey who chairs the state’s Smart Growth Study Group, and Mark Muro who is the policy director for the Metropolitan Policy Program with the Brookings Institution. Tom Condon, an editor and columnist for the Courant, moderated the event.

Regionalism is becoming a hot topic as the state and nation grapple with various financial crises. Just see today’s paper, not exactly a rosy outlook from the Governor for the next few years. The state and individual towns are going to be reaching crisis mode soon. But will crisis mode be enough to spur the appropriate action of towns working together on job growth, commercial and residential development, green space conservation, and education?

Based on the panel discussion, the major problems the state and individual towns are facing…

1. The majority of a town’s budget comes from property taxes. Unfortunately we are seeing Grand List growth of 1-2% a year (if at all), but operating expense growth of 6-7% a year. Currently the only way to increase revenue is to raise taxes. This is clearly not supported by citizens as exemplified by the referendums in West Hartford, Avon, and Farmington this year, just to name a few. Towns are facing reduced services and layoffs as they are unable to balance their revenue and expenses.

2. Connecticut is losing more young people than any other state in the country, which severely impacts the state’s ability to increase innovation which leads to new economic growth.

Here were the major ideas and thoughts presented by the panelists…

1. There is a Silent Crisis going on which mostly has to do with our small scale and the size of towns in Connecticut. We cannot have one town try to solve major issues on their own; work force, development, technology, etc. But this is what we are currently seeing. By pooling resources, we should be able to decrease costs by economies of scale. It would be easier to first consolidate “behind the curtain” opportunities such as IT, finance, and personnel, rather than the political hot buttons of fire departments, police, etc.

2. The State’s Smart Growth Study focused on Land Use, Economic Development, Tax Policy, and Regional Efficiency throughout the state. Property tax is becoming the key issue because people can’t see how they’ll stay in their homes if something doesn’t happen soon to stop taxes from rising.

3. The 4 major assets that influence prosperity in a region are; infrastructure, innovation capacity, human capital (education and training), and place making ability (do people want to live there). Governance is the lynchpin in these 4 assets and making them optimally productive. Certain cities like Denver, Charlotte, and Louisville are making the most out of their assets, but they each have different ways to run their regions. There is not just one right way to do it. Also, state and federal intervention is almost always needed in order for this to work.

4. The Greater Hartford area has an amazing asset base to utilize; well known colleges and universities, strong financial and manufacturing companies, proximity to NYC- but we don’t seem to be utilizing these assets. Charlotte and Minneapolis were dealt a much worse hand of cards, but are doing a much better job leveraging what they have to get more and grow.

5. The State of Connecticut needs a vision regarding growth and we do not have one. It is not clear where the spark will come from to leverage the assets that we currently have. We are in a holding pattern of comfort and complacency. There is no aspirational talk here. Other places are anxious to be something, but we are not.

6. Will starving our local governments force innovation? Will radicalism against the current way of operating be started with financial pain? It seems these might be the only ways to spur our local and state government into action. The problem with starving local governments is that irreparable damage can be done (to school systems, to workforce, etc.) in the meantime.

A few ideas were proposed to push for regionalism…

1. Most felt that there would need to be voluntary efforts made on the town level and that the state would need to offer economic incentives to regional areas that are working to consolidate overlapping services.

2. Pooling of pensions, insurance, etc. would be additional ways to save on costs.

NOTE: there were other ideas given (mostly examples from other cities), but my notes on that were a little sparse. My apologies.

My general observations…

1. My main concern with the entire discussion was the fact that Connecticut does not have an aspirational or inspirational vision. Where’s the leadership here? How are we ever going to get regionalism to work if no one from the top is pushing the vision? We have all of these little fiefdoms (towns) and everyone is interested in competing against each other to get the new company headquarters or best school system or best downtown development. There is no concern for neighboring towns, just as long as your town is safe and happy. Locally, why hasn’t it sunk in that if Hartford isn’t a viable economic center for businesses, that’s going to hurt all of the bordering towns?

2. How can I help on a local level? What can I be doing, as an individual, to help promote regionalism? Waiting for the state government to come up with a solution is a nice idea and all, but if I want to do something today, or everyday, to promote regionalism, what is it? I didn’t hear any ideas related to what I can do and I find it frustrating. I guess writing this blog post is a starting point. If you want to spread the word, please pass along this post to others.

3. The event was well attended, with slightly over 100 in the audience. I was surprised to see that less than 10 of us were in the “younger” group (say under 35 years old). The audience was predominantly folks that were 55+ and mostly white men. I wasn’t sure if the audience was a reflection of the demographic that finds this topic of interest, or that the time of day had more to do with it. Would an event held in the evening draw the same crowd? We need younger people caring about this too!

4. I really hope they keep holding these forums (at varying times of day) and that the Courant continues to push regionalism as an important topic. The number of regionalism-related articles seems to have increased in the Courant recently. I hope they can fill one of the leadership roles by promoting the ideas to their readership base.

Your thoughts?