At a fall press conference about a plan to rebuild Hartford’s highways, Congressman John Larson praised the mayors of Hartford and East Hartford, Luke Bronin and Mike Walsh, for how well they were working together to get the major infrastructure initiative underway.
This prompted Bronin to say he was “ready to sign the merger agreement” joining the two communities. Walsh nodded and smiled.
To be clear, there is no merger agreement, proposal or plan to consolidate the two municipalities that are separated by the Connecticut River. Bronin was kidding.
What if he were serious?
Underlying his comment is a long-standing frustration — shared by Walsh and many others over the years — that Connecticut’s historic 169-town governance model is inefficient and expensive, inhibits economic development and could stand reexamination.
“We do it differently than most other places,” said Bronin in a subsequent interview. “We have no county government. Our municipalities are very small, so small that it is hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons with cities in other states.”
The problem is that “companies look for centers of population,” dense urban places. With a quilt of small towns, “we miss a lot of opportunities.” As if to make his point, Lego Group announced in January that it was leaving Enfield and moving to Boston.
Would the state benefit from having fewer but larger towns? Would such changes be politically viable?
The answers, at least a present, may be: Yes and No. But there is push for change, at least for the merging of municipal services, if not governments.
Combining a municipality with an adjoining city, or with a surrounding county (not possible here; Connecticut abolished its counties in 1960), has been notoriously challenging across the country. According to data provided by the National League of Cities, in the last 40 years there have been almost a hundred referendums or initiatives to consolidate cities with counties, and voters rejected three-fourths of them.
Of the country’s more than 3,000 counties, only about 40 have merged with their core cities since 1895. About a third of those are in Alaska and Georgia.
Merging cities with adjacent cities is also a challenge; it’s been proposed a few times in Connecticut but never accomplished. Indeed, the state’s history has been just the opposite.
Connecticut’s model through most of its history has been to “hive off” towns, create new towns in areas that had been part of other towns, said state historian emeritus Walt Woodward. Thus, fewer large towns, more small towns.
For example, West Hartford, East Hartford and Manchester were once part of Hartford. East Hartford broke off Hartford in 1783, and then the “Orford Parish” broke off from East Hartford in 1823 to become Manchester. West Hartford remained part of Hartford until 1854.
Transportation was a major reason for the hiving, especially for the towns east of the river.
“It was a lot easier to walk down the street to church rather than cross the Connecticut River, especially in the winter,” said Woodward.
Had those communities all remained part of Hartford, the capital city today would have a population of nearly 300,000. This would put it in the population range of Madison, Wisc., Buffalo, N.Y. and Reno, Nev. and make it the second-largest city in New England, surpassing Worcester’s 206,000 and Providence’s 190,000. If just Hartford and East Hartford merged, as Bronin hinted, the city of 171,000 would be far and away the largest in the state, topping Bridgeport’s 150,000.
The hiving pattern repeated across the state; Connecticut towns got smaller rather than larger. The state does not allow forced or involuntary annexation, as a few do, nor does it have unincorporated land that could be annexed. Residents can petition the legislature to annex or merge with another town, but it has rarely happened — though West Hartford and Hartford twice tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
In 1895, some residents of West Hartford petitioned to be annexed by Hartford, which then was booming, but the plan failed. In 1923-24, Hartford tried to annex West Hartford back, but this effort was soundly defeated. Though a Hartford politician occasionally suggests annexing West Hartford, there’s been no serious effort to do so in a century.
New London and Waterford, which separated in 1801, talked in the 1960s about reuniting, but it didn’t happen. Ditto in the 1970s when Ansonia, Seymour, Shelton and Derby discussed, but did not pursue, consolidation.
Most recently, in 2017, the small Eastern Connecticut town of Scotland, pop. 1,585, floated the idea of merging with one or two surrounding towns. That trigger also went unpulled. Last fall, Scotland tried to merge its elementary school with Hampton’s, and that didn’t fly either.
Connecticut towns have merged with political subdivisions within their boundaries, such as villages, fire districts or even cities. In the 19th century, industrialists and merchants formed cities in the centers of some towns to promote their interests against those of the farmers. Most have since consolidated with the town, such as Willimantic with Windham and Rockville with Vernon.
But it doesn’t appear that there’s been a successful merger of two geographically distinct municipalities.
The irony is that in the rare instance when a city-county or city-city consolidation succeeds, it often benefits the community. Indianapolis, Nashville, Louisville and Jacksonville all became larger and more prominent cities by merging with their counties.
Advantages of merging towns
In 2011, voters in two smallish and similar towns in New Jersey, Princeton Township and Princeton Borough, voted to merge. The consolidation took place on Jan. 1, 2013. Mayor Liz Lempert told New Jersey Monthly that the combined municipality has saved more than $3 million each year, mostly by elimination of redundant jobs, and said creating a single 911 dispatch center and a single emergency operations center has significantly improved emergency operations.
The Princeton consolidation illustrates some of the plusses advocates see in merging communities.
For one, it saved money. This often comes with a caveat, according to the League of Cities: Municipal spending can increase in the short term as towns pay for severance agreements and the like but can achieve savings in the long term.
Mark Korber of Wethersfield, a retired lawyer who discusses regional issues on his "Hartford Today and Tomorrow” blog, did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and believes a merger of eight towns in Greater Hartford could save as much as $100 million a year.
But, as he acknowledged, no one has actually done a close analysis to determine what the savings might be. “When budgets are tight, giving up a little bit of control in exchange for tax savings is typically a good deal,” Mayor Lempert said. Whether Connecticut town officials agree is an open question.
As for increased efficiency, Mayor Walsh sees opportunity every day. At present, snow plows stop at town lines, a task that would be more efficient if organized regionally. He said his emergency call center could cover neighboring South Windsor and Glastonbury, and his fire department could cover South Windsor, eliminating duplicative services.
Larger cities mean enhanced planning capacity for land use, service delivery and economic development. Regional economic development is almost unheard of in Connecticut, but elsewhere, metro or county governments build airports, hospitals and convention centers, among other things, and offer an array of services.
Larger governments can also streamline approval processes, improve coordination with the private sector and improve accountability, according to the League.
Korber observes that larger cities can offer the compensation and challenges that attract top job candidates.
“There are benefits to being bigger,” he said. “Look, no one is following Hartford’s model and breaking up big cities into eight or 10 smaller ones."
With all of the potential advantages, why is urban consolidation such a hard sell? As the poet said, let me count the ways.
Most Connecticut towns were founded around autonomous Congregational churches, which imbued their congregants with a deep and abiding sense of localism and self-reliance, characteristics that seem to remain in the state’s DNA and may be the foundation for the region’s longstanding aversion to change and embrace of local control.
“There is so much (local) culture, tradition, community identity,” said Robert DeCrescenzo, a municipal lawyer who has served as mayor of East Hartford.
Indeed, many towns, especially small towns, have distinct personalities. Propose a merger, and “there would be a major debate over what the new town seal should look like,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, a former first selectman of Sprague.
Access to government is an issue. “Some people like to walk into town hall and bend my ear,” said Scotland First Selectman Gary Greenberg.
Financial matters — different debt levels, labor contracts and property tax rates — would have to be reconciled. School plans would have to satisfy parents, no small task.
Finally, the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund town government encourages towns to build their own grand lists and not, say, share tax revenue on economic development projects with other towns.
In short, it is challenging. The Princeton merger? It came on the fourth attempt in 60 years.
Instead of merging municipalities to save money and improve efficiency, the approach the state has taken over the past few decades has been to promote the sharing of town services.
Advocates such as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the nine councils of governments, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and the General Assembly’s MORE Commission, have tried, with appreciable success, to promote the sharing of services across town lines. These efforts have included, in some regions, shared bulk purchasing, online building permits, animal shelters, paramedic services and others.
Will the next step in this seemingly evolutionary process be the actual combining of two or more towns into one? If it does happen, at some point, the more likely locale won’t be the Capital region but the small towns in Eastern Connecticut. Not for nothing did Scotland (once part of Windham) raise the prospect of consolidation with other towns. It and many other towns in the Quiet Corner are struggling. The phrase “not sustainable” keeps popping up.
Many of these communities were mill towns that have lost most of their mills and must rely heavily on residential property taxes to support local services, said John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, which serves 16 towns in the region.
The towns have small schools with high per-pupil costs. Their municipal workforces are aging, and they are having trouble finding assessors, tax collectors or finance directors because, as Korber said, young people can make more money in larger cities or the private sector. Replace a town truck and the tax rate could jump by a mill.
“Small towns with 30-40 miles of road and road crews of two to five (workers) can barely keep up. They can only do so much with the resources they’ve got,” said Filchak.
Also, the first selectman’s job, which once could be done by a shrewd Yankee farmer from the seat of his tractor, or so it’s been said, has gotten much more complex and time-consuming.
The town leader has to chase grants, meet state mandates, handle personnel matters, keep up with legislation and regulation and so forth.
“It’s like they (area selectmen) are running a small to medium-sized company without the resources they need to do it,” Filchak said.
“You know the ‘deep state?'" said Greenberg, Scotland's first selectman, referring to the conspiracy theory of a clandestine network of federal workers. “I wish I had a ‘deep town.’ At least they could do some of the work.”
For his trouble, Greenberg makes $45,000 a year. He announced last June that he would not seek reelection. No one has stepped up to succeed him — there is nary a hat in the ring. His part-time finance director, who makes $15,000 per, is also leaving.
“Canary in the coal mine?” he wondered. Though there would be advantages to merging, Greenberg thinks because there is “so much tradition and sentiment" for the status quo that the only way consolidation will happen is if the state forces the issue.
Good luck with that. Recent history suggests it would be a heavy lift.
In 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic leaders proposed legislation that would have laid the groundwork for the consolidation of small school districts. The idea was met with fervent opposition from residents of many small towns, was watered down and then died in committee.
The solons did create a task force to study regionalization but with the caveat that “any initiative that the task force recommends must be optional for municipalities.”
So it appears that the gradual development of shared services, the wave of the recent past, will also be the wave of the near future. But Filchak is preparing a plan that could speed it up.
His idea is that three towns would share a professional town manager or administrator. “With the talent drain and administrative need, the towns need another option … They don’t necessarily need full-time people. What they need is the expertise.”
He is preparing a grant application for funds to implement the idea, which he thinks will move ahead. NECCOG already offers an array of shared services to surrounding towns, such as animal shelters, paramedic services, engineering, land use planning and others.
These services have been rolled out carefully.
“We have shown people that they work and that they don’t compromise local identity or control," he said. A shared town manager looks like the next step into the future.
A major benefit of a council of governments initiating a service-sharing project is that the council is run by the leaders of its towns, not an outside authority. Indeed, one of the recent proposals to increase regional activity is to give the councils of government more power, so they can operate somewhat like a county.
Korber is hardly the only one to suggest consolidating some of the state’s municipalities.
In 2014, former state consumer counsel Barry Zitzer proposed merging all of the state’s towns into eight cities. He opined that fewer municipalities would result in fewer department heads and “have more bargaining power to secure less costly contractor services and construction, as well as fewer and more uniform labor contracts.”
Former Sen. Gary LeBeau endorsed the idea in a 2018 interview, saying that while small governments are accessible and responsive, “too many small governments create unacceptable redundancy.”
Korber, like Bronin, believes stronger cities will enhance the state’s economy.
“The future is the cities,” Korber said. Perhaps the first step is getting past the reluctance some suburban officials have to work with their core cities.
“Some think they’ll be taking on the city’s problems. Actually, the large cities are well-run,” said Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and a strong proponent of regional service sharing.
One way cities and suburbs can work together is to focus on shared assets, said Bronin, which he said is why he fully supports a just-announced plan for a major development along the Connecticut River in East Hartford.
The next step beyond that?
“There are a lot of smart people here,” said Korber. “We can figure it out.”
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.