Connect(icut) the Dots….

If nothing else, I am from Connecticut. My family background is 100% Italian-American, going back to the early 20th Century. One grandparent on each side was born in Connecticut, the other in Italy. Both sides settled in Southington, a mill town about halfway between Hartford and New Haven. Every immediate family member I have lived in Connecticut….

Point is, I don’t have another point of reference. I know other places, some pretty well, but my outlook is pure Nutmegger. Long, intense winters. Short but similarly intense summers. Our major industries are Wall Street finance, Insurance, and Higher Education, probably in that order. What is left of the military industrial complex and manufacturing is bringing up the rear.

You can drive across the state, the long way, in about two hours. You can drive from Connecticut’s capitol Hartford to Boston, NYC, Providence, Albany, or the Vermont border, in about two hours. The Canadian border is about 4 hours away. It is a compact region, is my point.

So you would think we have it made. Loads of highly educated people making a good living, cultural wonders in abundance, beautiful woodlands, rolling hills (no mountains, really), lakes, rivers, the ocean (aka Long Island Sound), etc… Not so fast.

We have staggering economic disparity, often in very close proximity. Fairfield County regulary battles for the highest per-capita income of any county in the country, but contains one of the poorest cities in the nation (Bridgeport). We have Metro-North, the most intensely utilized mass transit system in the nation, but the citizenry by-and-large considers any mass transit project to be something between a boondoggle and a mortal sin. Metro-North brings the wealthy and powerful into New York City every morning and brings them home every night, but it is basically a disaster waiting to happen due to being starved of maintenance funds. Simply put, the Gold Coast doesn’t call the shots in Hartford.

If the three bears came to Connecticut it would not be “just right”. We have massive overhead due to three interstate highways and sprawling suburban development. Connecticut has 169 towns, almost all with their own local governments, and no county government to fill out the middle of the state-local axis. The town budgets rely heavily on property tax which the state gets essentially none of. The state backfills the town school budgets with “ECS”, or Education Cost Sharing, so town taxpayers are often shielded from the actual impact of their largest cost, schools. The state has to fund itself with a mix of income tax, sales, tax, business taxes, use-taxes and fees, and an array of nickel/dime nuisance taxes. We still have not mentioned taxes paid to Uncle Sam. Connecticut is near the bottom in federal tax recovered per-capita. Our federal taxes are not coming back to fix Metro North, for instance, and nobody seems too sure why. Add in the high costs for housing and food/essentials, and it can be a very expensive place to live.

Day to day, this is the status quo. Often complained about, but never truly analyzed. That should change. If you take a step back, what I just described is “lossy”. A lossy system is one where efficiencies are abandoned in favor of tradition, or other “steady habits”. Not surprisingly that is the way we roll here. Which is a shame. What we really need is a top-down rebuild of many things we hold dear.

Once the villages and mill towns grew into one another in a petri-dish like explosion of suburban sprawl, the gig was up. Your quaint notions of sovereignty are vestiges of a time gone by. My favorite analogy is the “string of pearls”. In the beginning you had a “string”, let’s say Route 10, splitting the state in half from north to south. New Haven to Springfield on a ribbon of asphalt. Once you cleared New Haven you wold travel past farms and woodland between a series of village centers, the “pearls”. But those pearls were growing, and in time edged together. Where once there was string, it is now covered by overgrown pearls. It was originally a wagon route, and paralleled sections of a rail and canal system. Those wagons, barges, and boxcars kept the mills and factories running for a hundred years. It was host to a trolley line until, like everywhere else, it gave way to the supremacy of the automobile. With the car came the pressure of suburban development.

When those villages were isolated there was a logical case to be made for their fiefdom governments, but in time they used that independence to make decisions at the expense of their neighbors, or to the advantage of the town fathers. Suburbs with elbow room could depress taxes to draw home buyers away from their neighbors. They could also push up taxes to keep out low-income families. They could offer tax abatements to pull industry away from the cities. The cities watched their industrial base flee, to China as often as another state or city, yet they still had to feed a hungry city machine. As the cities crumbled, their taxes would rise, burdening an already underemployed citizenry. Due to “white flight” where city dwellers fled urban centers for the suburbs, his was not seen as a problem by a largely middle-class state. When it was confronted it was often seen as an “urban” problem.

That was then. The lack of long-range planning has handcuffed those towns. They thought they could build enough homes to satisfy their growing budgets but they were just digging themselves a deeper hole. School systems were expanded, as were snow plowing and other maintenance functions. Police and fire services grew, along with increasingly complex administrative departments. In short, the low mil rates that attract those real estate developers and home buyers mean that the property taxes they pay fall short of covering the costs of the services they use. It also means that the towns cannot afford to create tax-reduction zones or tax rebate/incentive programs for seniors. That has resulted in what might be called “grey flight” as retirees leave the state for less expensive surroundings.

What we have now is a restless middle class looking longingly at lower taxes in the southern states, the mid-Atlantic, and beyond. The Connecticut promise was that those hyper-local policies had no downside. Flee the city for the suburbs, trade up and get better schools, move over one town and halve your property taxes… The idea was that all was fair and all decisions were equal. The triangulation of housing, job, and commute was supposed to be zero-sum. If not equal, they were not to be questioned. What we actually built is a landscape of bloated suburbs dependent on the retail and service economy, with secondary education and government jobs replacing the manufacturing and white-collar business positions that built the suburbs in the first place. All those kids need to go to school, they all need electricity, police, fire, road maintenance, parks, recreation, drinking water, clean air, cellular phone coverage, and so much more. The overwhelming reaction, regardless of your political bent or income, is that smaller government is the solution. In our current situation it is an easy conclusion to draw. Even easier if the alternative is wholesale regime change.

At one point, a time I can barely remember (the 80’s), it seemed like a numbers game. Residential development went unchecked on the premise that it generated revenue. Even when the numbers showed that the tax revenues were dwarfed by the costs of educating the kids in those houses you were better off barking at the moon. Towns were going to build their way out of budget shortfalls and no egghead was going to spoil the party with “math”. The battle lines were drawn between town councils padded with developers, bank presidents, realtors, and insiders who bought in to their cause on one side; and good-government types and academics on the other side who lacked the connections and financial motivation to gain even a board seat. But the numbers didn’t lie. Towns privatized services like trash collection, moving the costs off the books. Road maintenance was deprioritized, along with parks and recreation. We have built a rift between parents with kids in the schools and empty-nesters. With Connecticut schools averaging about $8,000 per student per year to educate a child, $4,000 in property tax seems like a steal. If you stay around for an additional 13 years for each kid you put through the system it probably works out. Otherwise it is just the price of living in a community with educated children. That price is born equally across the community, but burdens fixed-income elderly in a way that hardly seems fair.

If I had a tidy solution I would have laid it out by now. I know that there needs to be a discussion. I know it will be divisive. But I know also that our current system has outgrown itself. That bucolic “string of pearls” with country roads, mill towns, farms, and tidy urban enclaves is now a memory. Mementos exist, but that’s all they are. The steady habit should have been cooperative improvement and long-range planning but instead it has been greed, isolation, and finger pointing. A good long look in the mirror might be the first step we need, even if we aren’t thrilled with what we see.

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