New Haven’s regional fix?

When Karin Render and Thach Pham are in the dining room of their home at 140 Edgehill Rd., they are in Hamden. But when they move into their living room, they have crossed municipal lines into New Haven.

New Haven picks up their trash, but Hamden delivers their mail. Hamden Police turn up at the doorstep of their five-bedroom, two-and-a-quarter story Italianate-style home, but fire and ambulance service comes from the Whitney Avenue station in New Haven.

Municipal boundaries mean little for the everyday comings and goings of Render and Pham, director of strategic planning for the Yale Medical Group and a retired entrepreneur, respectively.

Some argue that the same can be said for large-scale economic and social patterns in Connecticut, patterns that New Haven’s ongoing budget process has brought to the fore. The provision of services and the levying of taxes should reflect regional ways of life, these urban advocates argue, holding up the Edgehill Road home as an example of the need for metropolitan government.

Amid debates over the proper property tax rate in New Haven, lawmakers and others are asking larger questions about the structure of taxation, and implicitly, the structure of government itself. Currently Render and Pham split their property taxes — 60 percent to 40 percent — between New Haven and Hamden; what if instead they were to pay into a larger pot and, in turn, receive services from a government whose authority was broader in scope?

“The region’s economic and social reality is metropolitan. Over half of all residents of every town work and sleep in two different towns,” said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, Yale’s deputy chief communications officer and a former city alder. “We sink or swim together.”

Morand pointed to additional examples: East Rock Park spans New Haven and Hamden, while Tweed-New Haven Airport sits in both New Haven and East Haven. Once, these structures were under the authority of New Haven County, which, since the elimination of county government in Connecticut in 1960, represents simply a cluster of towns on a map. New Haven, just 20 square miles in area, is autonomous from the slew of similarly small towns it abuts: West Haven, Orange, Woodbridge, Hamden, North Haven and East Haven.

HOW MANY IS TOO MANY?

The layout of Connecticut towns is a legacy of church districts dating back to centuries ago, said Mark Abraham ’04, executive director of the number-crunching nonprofit DataHaven. Small towns were placed roughly three or four miles apart so people were within walking distance of their church.

Richard Pomp, a professor of tax law and policy at the University of Connecticut School of Law, called that arrangement a “historical anachronism.” He said the proliferation of small taxing jurisdictions and duplicative municipal services is wasteful; regional government would create economies of scale, decreasing cost per unit of output.

Other metropolitan areas have taken advantage of consolidation, Morand said, pointing to domains as diverse as New York City, which unites five boroughs, and Louisville, Kentucky, which merged with the surrounding Jefferson County in 2003.

The problem, Pomp acknowledged, is political will: convincing the residents of Orange, Connecticut to fuse their police force with New Haven’s, for example. Suburban residents will “go to war if you start talking about metropolitan government,” said Yale School of Management Professor Doug Rae.

At the very least, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said, “Connecticut needs to begin to think of itself as a sort of county,” and take on more of the costs facing municipalities. Cities are engines of economic growth for the state, Harp said, and should be given the resources to flourish.

As the president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch has been a leading voice for that view. Bridgeport serves as a regional center for medical care and other social services. Similarly, Yale-New Haven Hospital serves patients across the region, but its tax-exempt status afflicts New Haven’s fiscal health alone.

The Payment in Lieu of Taxes statute seeks to address that inequity by compensating towns and cities for revenue lost to nontaxable land, but some say deeper reforms are needed, especially when state payments have fallen drastically short of meeting local need.

“The only way this can be fixed is at the state level,” said Brett Broesder, Finch’s spokesman.

HOME RULE?

State leaders have made modest strides toward regional solutions. Last year, Connecticut House Speaker Brendan Sharkey convened a commission on municipal opportunities and regional efficiencies, tasked with considering how local governments can cooperate on a regional level. Though disavowing forced consolidation, Sharkey called the existence of 169 independent taxing jurisdictions in the state “dysfunctional.”

Some services are already regional in scope, including water and sewer control in Greater New Haven, comprising the inner city and a handful of surrounding towns, including Hamden, East Haven and Woodbridge. Two thousand suburban students currently attend New Haven’s interdistrict magnet school, another example of creeping regionalism.

Last year’s state budget bill included a provision mandating regional school calendars, a requirement that, according to State Rep. Gail Lavielle GRD ’81, caused school districts in Fairfield County to “hit the ceiling.”

Weather can differ drastically within the region, Lavielle said, which makes it impossible to schedule snow days uniformly. Different communities spaced geographically within the region might celebrate different holidays, requiring local planning.

Connecticut municipalities already have the ability to opt to share resources regionally, she said; to enforce further consolidation would violate home rule and, in creating additional levels of government, duplicate the tax burden on residents. Lavielle also said distinct public sector collective bargaining units complicate a potential merger of government services, even if lawmakers and residents in the suburban towns could be convinced to do so.
“Either way, it’s nobody’s business outside of Orange and Milford to convince people there to change the way they relate to their government,” Lavielle said. “I think it’s up to them.”

But Morand said people do not have a choice; they are already implicitly endorsing regional structures of government simply by turning on a faucet or flushing a toilet. Life at the most basic level defeats arbitrary municipal boundaries, he said.

Further, Harp said, New Haven is poised to be a regional hub of growth. If adapting the layout of governmental authority furthers the city’s growth, it is a boon to surrounding towns.

“The reason [Governor Dannel Malloy] can see Jackson Laboratories as something that builds synergy in biotechnology is because we have such a strong biotechnology center here in New Haven,” Harp said. “We’ll grow the nuclear part of the region here, but we’ll also grow in the towns that abut us.”

Cliff Atkin, a field appraiser for the city of New Haven, estimated that there are five or six properties in addition to the home Edgehill Road that cross municipal lines.

Though the blueprint of his own home forces him to live regionally, Pham expressed skepticism about the prospect of greater municipal consolidation. Small towns enable local knowledge, which is at the heart of neighborhood-based commitments such as New Haven’s community policing effort.

Comments