As the debate over the future of Essex’s recreation departments picks up steam, one village trustee is disturbed by how polarizing the conversation has become.
“I’m so upset by all this divisive information … people who aren’t taking the time to really do the research are being led by misinformation,” trustee Elaine Sopchak said last week.
Sopchak planned to present the trustees her findings on special taxing districts Tuesday night in light of the proposal to merge the town and village recreation departments. While noting special taxing districts can be problematic, Sopchak argues many negative aspects aren’t applicable to Essex’s plan.
Special taxing districts sprung to the forefront of Essex’s consciousness after selectboard member Irene Wrenner first criticized the plan to create a recreation district between the town and the village.
Since then, Wrenner has handed out fliers and helped establish a political action committee to combat the proposal while continuing to question the committee’s methods and motives.
She’s also urged residents to research the issue for themselves.
“I respect Irene,” Sopchak said. “When she throws up a red flag, that says to me we need to dig a little deeper.”
So Sopchak looked at a report on special tax districts by the Goldwater Institute, a media center The New York Times dubbed a “watchdog for conservative ideals.”
Wrenner and PlanBforEssex.org, the PAC’s website, heavily cite the report, which says there are approximately 40,000 special tax districts in the U.S.
The report asserts special districts have “contributed heavily” to local government spending and debt growth, doing so “virtually behind the scenes and at a lower standard of accountability” than traditional local governments.
The report also says many taxpayers don’t realize they’re even paying into these entities, which often provide services at a higher cost without better or even adequate quality.
Sopchak challenged the report’s relevance to Essex’s proposal.
For one, the report claims such districts have grown around the country because they aren’t subject to the spending and debt limits municipal governments face. Vermont is one of four states without such limits, Sopchak said.
In regards to taxes, all residents would pay the same rate into an STD without a change in services, she said, and removing these costs from the town budget would decrease municipal taxes.
It’s a topic that’s split many in Essex.
Since a true budget can’t be finalized until the recreation district board takes form after the vote, critics of the plan say this forces voters to decide without knowing its cost.
Meanwhile, the proposal’s supporters urge patience. The committee hopes to have a prospective budget and tax impact ready for its first community forum, planned for September 28 at Essex Middle School.
The district’s oversight and accountability is also a major point of contention.
Challengers believe the district’s one-layered governance model lacks oversight and opens the door for fraud. Placing the district under the town would instead create three layers: the recreation board, the selectboard and the municipal manager.
The committee argues the new district would actually have more oversight, not less, since a five-person board would focus solely on the district without worrying about other departments.
Additionally, residents vote directly on the district’s budget on the ballot, allowing resources to be “preserved for enhancing recreation,” according to the committee’s website.
The Goldwater report suggests ways to make STDs more accountable to taxpayers, including recommending an annual audit, electing a governing board and aligning all votes with regularly scheduled ones.
The district fulfills the first two already, Sopchak said.
And after the Dec. 13 vote — which the RSGC said was originally planned for November until it realized Vermont law doesn’t allow special votes to coincide with national elections — the district will hold all other votes in April.
Therefore, it will have the “same amount of checks and balances” as both the trustees and the selectboard, Sopchak said.
The board planned to discuss and adopt a resolution supporting the district’s proposal on Tuesday night after The Reporter went to print.
Like Sopchak, some residents aren’t impressed by the debate’s hostility.
“As a community we need to focus on what the interest is,” said resident Abe Berman at Monday’s selectboard meeting.
Berman said his 7-year-old daughter participates in many rec programs, and it’s one of the reasons he chose to live in Essex.
He asked people on both sides of the issue to “calm the rhetoric down a little bit” and try to have a discussion without pointing fingers.
“I’ve talked to people at my office who live in other towns, and they’re even following this saying, ‘What’s going on in Essex?’” he said. “It seems like a real lack of the Vermonter way of trying to communicate with each other.”