Bridgeport State Rep. Steve Stafstrom writes in a commentary that “we must partner together, standing united as cities and suburban towns to help our cities thrive as the sustainable regional job creators and economic drivers we need them to be.”
It is no secret that Connecticut’s economic recovery has not been as robust as it could have been. And, it certainly has been well documented that a large contributing factor is that Connecticut has lagged in its recognition that in the innovative and modern 21st century economy, businesses and young professionals are looking to move back to dynamic, livable, walkable cities. In increasing numbers, people of all ages and demographics are eschewing the suburban model that thrived in previous generations.
Connecticut is at a significant disadvantage by having cities which have been left to bear staggering legacy costs, resulting in high taxes, inadequate funding for education and reduced services. For far too long, the State has turned a blind eye to its cities, allowing them to suffocate under the economic and social costs they incurred generations ago in order to be the postwar, industrial drivers the State relied upon to build our 20th-century economy as businesses and residents fled to ‘greener’ pastures–both inside and outside of Connecticut.
Thankfully, many policymakers, advocates and businesses have now recognized that Connecticut’s future quality of life depends on the health and success of our central cities and have been working to reverse this tide. This is not an easy undertaking. To do so, we must partner together, standing united as cities and suburban towns to help our cities thrive as the sustainable regional job creators and economic drivers we need them to be. The growth of our State economy depends upon it.
Unfortunately, not all citizens of the State seem to appreciate this. It truly is disheartening to hear the myopic views some have expressed in their criticism of the central tenets of recent State budget proposals–to stabilize the finances of our core cities and equalize the education funding formula. Some have suggested “poor management” is solely to blame for disparities between municipal finances, failing to appreciate that a broken, regressive property tax system has pitted municipalities against one another for decades. Or some continue to pay lip service or turn an outright blind eye to the fact that access to education in Connecticut is dependent on your zip code. Such mentalities are not helping our economic fortunes.
Consider this example: if the Governor’s budget proposal were to be approved as it currently exists, Fairfield has reported that it may need to raise its mil rate from 25 to 26 and might not be able to afford para-professionals in its third-grade classes. Compare this with neighboring Bridgeport which already has a mil rate over 54 and has been forced to eliminate para-professionals in its kindergarten classes (and does not have paraprofessionals at any other grade level). This discussion is certainly not intended to minimize the discomfort that this level of belt-tightening in Fairfield and other towns will cause, but rather to highlight and demonstrate the significant disparities that already exist under our current fiscal structure. Bridgeport spends $227 million to educate 21,000 students while Fairfield can afford nearly $167 million to educate less than half that many students. The suggestions that our core cities, like Bridgeport, are already receiving too much educational funding is counterproductive to growing our cities and to generating real economic returns for our State.
Our State’s challenges are real but surmountable. As we confront them, we as a State need to consider putting “we before me.” The collective mentality among towns and cities cannot be that spending cuts are necessary as long as they affect only other towns and not “my” own. To truly harbor a desire to see the State experience economic growth and success, everyone MUST be willing to invest in creating the dynamic cities which our 21st Century economy demands, even if those investments come at a near-term cost. As the budget process continues to play itself out in Hartford, my suggestion is that we all step back and recognize that we have a far greater interest in working together to grow the total size of the pie, rather than continuing to claw for a comparative share of one that is shrinking.