What could happen if Connecticut's cities and towns were to merge
In the land of steady habits, small-town government is the norm. But for how long?
WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “Does CT need 169 municipalities? Some say merging makes sense,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.
WSHU: In your article, you explore the idea of merging some of Connecticut's municipalities. Can you give us a brief overview of what town consolidation in the state has looked like?
TC: Historically, it's basically been nonexistent. The state has gone the other way, dividing bigger towns into smaller ones. And this goes back to the Puritan origins of the state where farming communities would form autonomous congregational churches. They would apply for church status to the General Assembly that was originally called the General Court, and then a community would build up around it. Now sometimes there'd be a theological dispute. And so half of the congregation would march and start a new church. They'd argue about the shape of the window or something, whatever.
I mean, if you ever noticed that there were three Protestant churches on the New Haven green, these theological disputes would bring about new churches and they were autonomous, they were self-reliant, and so were the towns that built up around them. So for example Hartford in colonial times included what is now West Hartford, East Hartford and Manchester. Over time, these communities hived off from Hartford, so we're left with four towns where there was one and this has been the pattern across the state. Waterford was once part of New London and Scotland was once part of Windham, you know, so it's the same. So that's sort of how we got here.
Now, some states made up for many small towns with county governments. Connecticut had counties but they were weak counties, they didn't have much to do beyond sheriffs and jails. At one time, they gave out liquor licenses, but that ended after Prohibition. The counties were done away with in 1960. So we haven't had counties in 60 years, but we've gotten 169 municipal governments in an area and also some, you know, borough governments in an area that's smaller than some counties in the West. So in the article, I raised the question, is this a good idea?
WSHU: So is it? I mean, do we actually get any advantages out of this, that other states with stronger county governments or fewer municipalities don't have?
TC: I can't think of any advantages we get with all these small towns, other than it's what we're used to. Connecticut is the land of steady habits, people like their towns. So I guess the question is, could you keep what you like about your town, like the Little League and the Memorial Day parade and at the same time, get regional, more efficient service delivery? So it's, can you have it both ways? Are you willing to give up a little power to save money and get more efficiency? That's the question and thus far it has been answered, no. So that's where it is.
And by the way, consolidation, either with another town or with the surrounding county in the states that have counties, which is 48 of them, is very difficult. People don't like change. And yet when it's happened, it is accrued to the benefit of the community. I once lived in Indiana, at a time when Indianapolis was known as “India-no-place,” “stoplight in the cornfield” and all. It merged with its surrounding county and has become a booming city. And same with Nashville, Louisville, Jacksonville. So it's a funny thing. People don't want to do it. But when they do it, it seems to work.
WSHU: You brought up the example of Hartford, I mean, what would it look like if it were actually done in a city or municipality in Connecticut?
TC: It would be the second largest city in New England, it would have almost 300,000 people. What we have now, like snow plows stopping at the town line, is very inefficient. Every town has their own 911 call center. Harris County, Texas where Houston is, is about the size of Connecticut and they have one. Greater Hartford has a whole bunch of them. And I think it would be more appealing to companies. Companies like a critical mass of population for employees, for benefits to their employees, like quality of life. And so I think it would it would look different, there's no question,
WSHU: Is this a conversation that's actually happening? Is there a group of lawmakers supporting this right now? Is there a movement for this?
TC: There is not. What is being supported and has been by certain legislators is regionalizing some municipal services. We have nine councils of government in the state. We should have eight. But that's another story about Bridgeport. And they have gradually offered more regional services; bulk purchasing, online permitting, a bunch of animal shelters. It hasn't reached any sort of first tier services. I mean, we haven't seen anybody merge police departments. Where it may happen, I think, is in fire protection. Because it's gotten harder to get volunteer firefighters. And if because of this, coverage fails, there may be a demand to get more efficient regional fire coverage, that would be a big step ahead.
Maybe the ideal situation would be that if you had every service that could be more efficiently offered regionally and let the towns become villages or boroughs to keep some of their duties and keep what people like about them. People like their towns, right? And so you know, the place is still there, you still get what you like about it. And you don't have to worry about the emergency calls or fire departments. I know for the small towns, it's getting harder to find employees, getting harder to find tax assessors and clerks and other people to do the daily work.
Interestingly, in Eastern Connecticut, they're working up a proposal to have three towns share a town manager. So is this a step toward consolidation? You know, who knows.