Group Warns: As Cities Go, So Go The Suburbs
The fate of Connecticut's suburbs is closely linked to the health of its cities, yet four of the state's major urban centers — including Hartford — are saddled with high unemployment, crime rates and homeless populations, according to a report released Monday by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
CCM's findings are in line with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin's central message: If the cities fail, their suburbs will, too. If cities fail, Connecticut fails
The group examined conditions in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury, concluding that the cities face "enormous" challenges in social services, public safety and education. Hartford's unemployment rate, for example, hovers around 11 percent, while the state average is 5.9 percent, and nearly three times as many students in Hartford speak English as a second language compared with the state average.
The findings are largely in line with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin's central message since taking office this year: If the cities fail, their suburbs will, too.
"These four communities bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to providing services for Connecticut's neediest residents," officials at CCM wrote in their report. "At the same time, these cities are regional hubs for economic development, health care, and culture. If these hubs fail, the suburbs around them will also plummet. People won't move their families or businesses to regions without a strong cultural and work base."
Bronin's message back to top
Bronin has used this argument to push for shared services with neighboring towns. He has also floated the idea of a regional tax or an increase in the state sales tax designed to help struggling municipalities.
Last month, Bronin asked a state panel to review Hartford's finances in hopes that the results would spur legislative reform. City hall insiders have speculated that without a legislative fix this year, the mayor could file for bankruptcy.
Hartford faces a $22.6 million shortfall this year, and a more than $50 million budget deficit next year. The city is also dealing with cash flow problems that could prevent it from being able to pay its bills in December. Bronin is seeking state assistance with the issue.
Key findings by CCM also included: Poverty rates in Hartford and the other three cities are at least twice as high as the state's; more than half of Connecticut's homeless people live in those four cities; and the cities all have higher equalized tax rates than the state average.
The group also noted that more than 75,000 people commute into the cities for employment, and the cities provide health care, art institutions and cultural activities.
"Only a strong central city can provide these anchors," CCM officials wrote. "If the central city isn't viable, the only alternative for economic growth will be areas that haven't yet been developed, devouring Connecticut's green space and agricultural communities. All of Connecticut has a stake in the vitality of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury."
Bronin in August joined a task force studying revenue options for cities and towns, along with the prospect of regionalizing services. The panel, formed by CCM, is expected to issue a report in December.
"It emphasizes some of the things that I've been saying," Bronin said Monday of the CCM report. "Cities have a different set of burdens, responsibilities and challenges, and if we want our cities to be successful so our state can be healthy and strong, then we've got to build a system that allows cities to meet those responsibilities effectively."
As legislators weigh what type of reform could work for municipalities, which rely heavily on property taxes to fund crucial services, Sen. John Fonfara said people who live in and lead suburban towns would probably support "some mechanism" to assist distressed cities — provided those cities have their fiscal houses in order.
"You're not going to convince everyone. There are going to be people who say, 'Let Hartford burn,'" Fonfara, D-Hartford, said. "But I don't believe that's anything close to the majority. I think the average person who saw this information objectively would say we need to do something."