The Hartford Courant has had a presence in the Connecticut capital for 250 years. Last month, the newspaper’s owners announced that the newsroom would be permanently closed. The Courant will continue to publish, but its reporters and editors will no longer operate the phones in its downtown offices. Some journalists may find the switch to remote work a relief. Hartford is the most dangerous city in the state, and by some standards one of the most dangerous cities in the country.
Hartford, once known as the “Insurance Capital of the World,” has been in decline for 30 years. In the 1990s, Hartford’s population bleeding made national news. Today it’s even smaller, less than 70% from 1950. Hartford’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation. The city is falling apart.
Even before the pandemic, WalletHub.com Hartford ranked 46th among state capitals for affordability, economic well-being, education, health and quality of life. It is unlikely that the past nine months have improved this ranking. The city spends more than $ 400 million on education annually ($ 17,260 per student), but nearly 30% of its students don’t graduate from high school on time. Only 18% of students in grades 3 to 8 test at age-appropriate math levels and 25% read.
Hartford has been ruled almost entirely by Democrats since 1948. The city’s only female republican mayor, Antonina Uccello, left office in 1971. Earlier this year, Mayor Luke Bronin, 41, adopted the progressive mantra of “disappointing the police” and reduced the city’s public safety budget by $ 2 million, or 6%. Because of the increase in gun violence, Mr. Bronin had to ask Governor Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, to send the Connecticut State Police. There were more than 200 shootings in the city in the first eleven months of the year. It was Hartford’s most violent year in at least a decade. What does Mr. Bronin think was responsible? A Connecticut Public Radio report stated bluntly, “The mayor blames COVID-19 for the gun violence explosion in his city.”
Mr. Bronin was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. As a former senior Obama Treasury official, he appeared to be the right man – at least on paper – to turn around a city plagued by ongoing fiscal problems. Hartford suffers from excessive debt, large amounts of tax-free government property, runaway pension costs, structural budget deficits, and a property tax rate that is the highest in the state.
Instead of devising a plan to correct decades of mismanagement, Mr. Bronin went to the suburbs to come up with a crazy idea for the left. Progressives call it “regionalism”. Sensible people call it a tax break.
Hartford was critical to the success of the entire region, Bronin argued, so the surrounding suburbs should share their tax revenues with the city and pay some of their costs. This is essential to ensure the budgetary stability of Hartford. “You can’t be out of nowhere,” he told residents of West Hartford, a separate parish. Not surprisingly, West Hartford and other neighboring towns sent Mr. Bronin to pack.
In an attempt to shake off a government bailout from Governor Dannel Malloy, Mr Lamont’s Democratic predecessor, Mr Bronin drafted plans for Hartford’s bankruptcy in 2017. The threat proved effective. Knowing that a bankrupt capital city would be a black eye to Connecticut like Harrisburg was to Pennsylvania in 2011, Mr. Malloy agreed that Connecticut taxpayers would have all Hartford general bonds worth approximately $ 534 million over the next three years. Dollars should absorb decades.
After Hartford’s financial problems were “resolved”, Mr. Bronin abandoned any reform claim and focused solely on promoting regionalism, the justification of which has recently shifted from cost savings to racial and economic justice. DesegregateCT, a new nonprofit founded by Sarah Bronin – an architect, law professor, and the mayor’s wife – claims that “outdated” zoning laws make the state’s small towns unaffordable and therefore responsible for the concentration of urban poverty. The dire economic policies of the politicians – and public employees unions – who run the Connecticut cities apparently have nothing to do with the state in which they find themselves.
Rather than taking control of the zoning of well-managed cities across the state, Mr Lamont should work with mayors to solve the basic structural problems of their cities. Bailouts can hide these issues for a while, but they will return at some point.
Families in Hartford and in cities across Connecticut have waited decades for real reform. Private charities have helped fill the gaps left by weak political leaders, but repairing Connecticut’s broken cities requires tough decisions. Short-term bailouts will not make it. Neither are false claims about the effectiveness of regionalism nor other progressive pipe dreams.
Connecticut is in dire need of leaders willing to engage with stakeholders and reform the pensions that weigh on urban budgets. Cities like Hartford need to cut taxes and regulations to attract businesses and create jobs. Mayors need to clean up troubled neighborhoods and fight crime, invest in charter and magnet schools, and provide educational funding for the child so parents can choose where their children go to school rather than keeping them in underperforming areas.
None of this is easy. None of this is fast. And none of this makes political sense or is likely to be backed by powerful public sector unions – which probably explains why none of this happens in Connecticut, at least.
Mr Stefanowski was the Republican candidate for Connecticut governor in 2018.
Best of 2020 from Kim Strassel, Kyle Peterson, Mary O’Grady, Dan Henninger and Paul Gigot. Photo: Getty Images
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