February 19, 2018
Other Voices

A blueprint to turn around Hartford

Oz Griebel

Over the last 20 years, we have invested billions of our federal and state tax dollars in Hartford and Connecticut's other urban centers.

The investment in Hartford has resulted in the establishment of the Connecticut Science Center, the renovation of the G. Fox building, major improvements to The Bushnell, Hartford Stage and the Wadsworth Atheneum, the launch of the University of St. Joseph School of Pharmacy, the relocation of the UConn campus from West Hartford, and several thousand new apartment units.

At the same time, Hartford's mill rate has increased to nearly 75, preventing any major unsubsidized private investment. The real property component of the Grand List plummeted by more than 37 percent over the last 20 years from $4.8 billion to $3 billion.

The only way to reverse this trend is to launch a meaningful and radical restructuring of Hartford's assessment and taxing policies to restore the confidence of homeowners and commercial investors. That confidence is critical to driving the growth in the Grand List needed to produce a competitive mill rate of 50 or lower over the next five years.

Much has been made of the city's current fiscal crisis, including talk of a bankruptcy filing. While three major property owners have pledged financial support, the state government has reacted with another bailout plan that will neither accomplish reform nor reduce the mill rate.

While the creation of the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) will be helpful, tackling the city's fiscal crisis requires a "grand plan" comparable to the one implemented by Detroit as part of its bankruptcy.

Hartford's major government and private-sector stakeholders must create such a strategic plan prior to the adoption of the city's budget for fiscal 2019. The plan must be approved by the MARB before the state provides any additional financial support to the city.

Such a collaborative approach is the only way the city will achieve the comprehensive and sustainable fiscal reform required by Aetna, The Hartford and Travelers to deliver on their extraordinary commitment of $50 million of financial assistance over five years. As importantly, it is the only way to reignite the confidence needed by the private sector to invest on an unsubsidized basis.

During my last year at the MetroHartford Alliance, we provided city leadership and major property owners with the draft of such a plan.

The key elements include:

• Capping the growth in the city's annual budget for the next five years;

• Privatizing certain city services;

• Consolidating the Department of Public Works and information technology functions of the city and its schools;

• Increasing the assessment ratio for residential housing to 70 percent;

• Converting all state-owned office buildings to private ownership;

• Securing an agreement from the larger commercial property owners that they will pay the same amount of property taxes as they did in fiscal 2017 for five years regardless of any decrease in the mill rate;

• Working with the larger tax-exempt properties to determine a fair rate of taxation.

We also recommended two additional steps for a compelling regional strategy.

The first is for The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to take the lead to fund and structure a robust marketing plan that promotes the region's assets and focuses on jobs growth and attracting private-sector investment.

The second action is for the Capital Region Council of Governments to develop a comprehensive plan to deliver key municipal services across its 39 towns on a more cost-effective basis.

The city's fiscal crisis provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate on a radical and effective approach to ensure fiscal stability and economic and job growth.

Oz Griebel is the former CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance and is running for governor as an independent.

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