Does the Independent Town in Connecticut Still Make Sense?
by Susan Bigelow
“In this part of the Union political life had its origin in the townships; and it may almost be said that each of them originally formed an independent nation.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville, on the New England town
The people of Pipestave Swamp, sometimes called Cow Plain and later West Farms, had a problem. They were a part of the town of Wethersfield, governed by the Wethersfield town meeting, and worshiped at Wethersfield’s parish. But the church and the town meeting were far away, across steep Cedar Mountain, and just getting there and back could be an arduous, all-day affair.
So they successfully petitioned Wethersfield in 1712 to create a separate parish, and to have their own minister. In time, the two halves of Wethersfield developed separate institutions, finally divorcing in 1871 when Newington incorporated as a wholly separate town.
These problems of geography, religion and democracy led to New England’s distinctive form of local government: the independent, incorporated town. In the early days of English settlement the church and state were intimately tied together. Settlers drew parish lines based on families’ ability to travel to church, and soon they set up a local government based along the same lines.
This is why so many towns seem to radiate outward from the town green and the old church with the white steeple.
In Connecticut, this system of 169 separate towns, so different from the system of counties, townships and cities used in the rest of the country, has served well enough for centuries. It was especially useful early on when towns developed in relative isolation, cut off by geography and distance. But in this age of fast travel, faster communication and increasing regional cooperation,
it’s worth asking: Does this system still make sense?
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey has a passionate interest in finding ways for towns to cooperate to deliver services more efficiently. One of Sharkey’s projects is the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (M.O.R.E.) commission, which focuses on cost efficiency through regional collaboration.
The big problem for our system of towns right now, says Sharkey, is the property tax. “Towns and cities develop and search for revenue-generating projects and programs that are not in the best interest of the overall state,” he says. The constant struggle for resources is harmful, in his opinion. Because each town raises property taxes separately, he says, “you pit town against town for resources. You don’t get the kinds of efficiencies you could.”
The situation gets worse when it comes to the cities. New Haven alderman and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker believes that the property-tax system favors suburban towns over cities. “The challenge that we face in New Haven is that we have an incredible amount of non-taxable property, such as the hospital [and] the universities, that makes it difficult for us to fund our government,” he says. “Some would say that we actually subsidize the suburban towns in some ways,” because New Haven provides jobs and services the surrounding towns don’t necessarily have.
As for town and city working together, Elicker says, “Historically, surrounding towns have been unwilling to cooperate. Part of that is the relationships between mayors . . . and partly it’s because suburban towns are benefiting from the current system.” He thinks that cities would benefit from seeing county governments, which were abolished in 1960, return. “I would love to see more of a county government structure,” he says, though he thinks it’s unlikely to happen.
“Regionalism would help us in many ways,” he says, but admits, “We need to start small. We need to build a level of trust between the towns.”
Ivan Kuzyk, director of the state Office of Policy and Management’s Statistical Analysis Center, also sees the system of small, independent towns as harmful to cities. His A Hartford Primer and Field Guide, written while he was director of the Cities Data Center at Trinity College in 2001, states that “The city’s inability to incorporate surrounding land has been cited as a cause of the city’s decline.”
Kuzyk still believes this is true. “Hartford’s inability to expand between the 1920s and 1960s did incredible harm to the long-term economic and social prospects of the city,” he says. “Seventeen square miles of land is simply, in my opinion, too small a space to operate viably as a city.”
Kuzyk believes that middle-class flight to the suburbs was especially ruinous here because it took tax dollars across town borders. “Cities west of here, those that were able to expand, simply absorbed their suburban populations—holding on to their middle-class populations with their tax dollars,” he says.
New England cities rarely ever annexed surrounding towns (Boston being the notable exception). But in other cities where annexation and conglomeration was more common, “the results . . . were more diversified populations,” says Kuzyk. “Which really is what a healthy city is all about.”
Yet, the news is not all bad. “I think we’re better off without the county system, because with county government comes county bureaucracy and county taxes,” says Sharkey. He believes that the existing regional planning organizations—based on the 13 state-designated planning regions established in the 1950s, and created to carry out a variety of regional planning and other activities—can promote and coordinate regional interests the way counties would, but without the massive cost.
Enfield Mayor Scott Kaupin believes that the current system has plenty of advantages. “One of the advantages is the role of local control, with decisions being made as close to the residents and taxpayers as possible,” he says. “When you’re dealing with services . . . people like to pick up that phone and speak to a decision maker.”
Kaupin asserts that while there are plenty of hurdles to regional cooperation, there are also successes. “There’s a tremendous amount of cooperation between communities in the capital region,” he says. “What’s good for the region is good for the town as well.”
There’s also the possibility of relieving the property-tax pressure on cities and towns. “One thing we can do [to help cities] at the state level is take direct action on property taxes,” says Speaker Sharkey. His M.O.R.E. commission recommended phasing out some taxes, including an ill-fated proposal to axe property taxes on cars.
For all its flaws, the independent New England town is a remarkably durable institution, and it continues to evolve, sometimes slowly and painfully, with the times.
“Human nature is that people want to be in control,” says Mayor Kaupin. It was true for the people of Pipestave Swamp, who looked at the mountain and decided to do for themselves, and it’s still true of Connecticut’s people today. For that reason, the independent town is likely to endure.