DEFIESTA: Thinking regionally

City Limits

Mayor Toni Harp extensively elaborated on New Haven as a city “poised” in her first State of the City address last week. We’re poised to take advantage of progress in opening youth spaces, poised to make the most of new leadership across city departments, poised to capitalize on momentum in reducing neighborhood violence with ongoing policing initiatives.

defiestaBut one thing the mayor didn’t mention — perhaps because she’s come to realize New Haven is decidedly not poised in this regard — was any effort toward greater regionalization. “Regional-what?” you might ask. That’s a normal reaction. Compared to fighting homelessness, educating children or protesting unfair immigration policies, regionalization is certainly not a sexy issue; I don’t expect to see angry protesters on the steps of City Hall calling on our elected leaders to direct their attention to regionalization.

But nevertheless, problems related to regionalization comprise one of the most fundamental challenges to the city’s long-term future. Here’s how it works: Thanks to state law, towns in Connecticut are much smaller than they naturally tend to be, with New Haven sitting at less than a measly 19 square land miles. With the 1960 abolishment of county governments, each Connecticut city is essentially left to decide for itself how to raise taxes and provide civic services like schools and fire departments.

Theoretically, this might work out just fine, with each town offering whatever level of services its residents are willing to pay for. But reality refuses to cooperate so nicely; instead of towns acting as individual entities, New Haven serves as the central hub for the metropolitan region we call Greater New Haven.

Within Greater New Haven — which ranges from Milford to Bethany to Branford — just about everything about civic life is intertwined. Two-thirds of workers in these towns commute to another part of Greater New Haven, kids from New Haven proper attend schools in the suburbs (and vice versa) and residents from all over the region come to shop and dine in the Elm City.

Most importantly, New Haven provides the region with a number of important services, such as medical care at Yale-New Haven Hospital. But the presence of facilities like Yale-New Haven and Yale University, both tax-exempt by state law, robs the city of much-needed revenue: 47 percent of city land is nontaxable, leaving New Haven’s coffers dangerously empty when compared to its suburban counterparts.

Confused? Not to worry — the big picture is that New Haven provides a great number of essential services to the region and takes a major ding in its pocketbook as a result.

The state has tried to make amends for this disparity throughout the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, which reimburses cities for 77 percent of lost property taxes on nonprofits and 45 percent of funds lost on state buildings. But legislators in Hartford have failed to fund PILOT to such levels for a decade — and the state has given New Haven less than half the money it promised. This has starved the city and forced it into the realm of perpetual budget deficits.

These deficits have forced cities to cut just about everything, from police services to youth programming, and have prevented municipal lawmakers from focusing on the issues they deem most important. A sweeping legislative vision is one thing; actually funding all of legislators’ grandest dreams is another. A fully funded PILOT can help us bridge the gap between the two.

If New Haven is to be truly prosperous in the long run, its legislators must encourage planning and policy on a regional scale. Such a shift would benefit not just New Haven; greater regionalization would help provide every town in Greater New Haven with greater efficiency and higher quality services.

PILOT certainly isn’t the only front in the battle for greater regionalization; it’s long been a dream of city policy wonks to see more effective regional transportation planning, and better regional cooperation on matters such as education and police services could only reap additional benefits for Greater New Haven. But getting the state to fund PILOT at the level it’s promised is a crucial first step in this process.

With a resolution passed by all 30 alders calling on the state to fully fund PILOT supported by Mayor Harp, there’s little city lawmakers can do now. We can hope that, in a tough election year, Gov. Dannel Malloy will remember that cities are the centers of the state’s economic growth, and that asking them to bear the weight of a region is one burden too many.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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