A razor-thin Town Meeting Day race for a three-year seat on the selectboard has prompted a recount scheduled for this Saturday, according to the Essex town clerk.
Mona Sheppard requested the recount a day after losing to Elaine Haney Sopchak by just 18 votes: Sopchak led with 931 votes, followed by Sheppard’s 913 and a distant third-place finish from Timothy Farr, who tallied 126, preliminary results show.
Vt. law says recounts in local elections can only be requested by candidates who lost by less than 5 percent of the overall ballots cast, divided by the number of candidates (three in this case). The board of civil authority will now meet at 10 a.m. at the town offices Saturday to hand count the votes.
Sopchak was reached Tuesday night, before the recount was announced, and said she’s “extremely grateful” to everyone who voted and called her triumph a sign the community “wants to continue moving forward to a great future.” She’s previously said she plans to seek re-election to the village board of trustees next month.
Further down the ballot, Steven Eustis, who ran unopposed, was re-elected as moderator with 1,787 votes.
The 1,985 votes cast Tuesday represent a 12.6 percent turnout of Essex’s 15,756 registered voters – 3 percent higher than last Town Meeting Day. Meanwhile, a higher-than-usual showing of 292 residents at the annual meeting the night prior represented a 1.8 percent turnout.
There, Essex voters passed a general fund budget slightly higher than the one they were asked to approve, choosing to throw an extra $45,000 to move up the start date for a new police officer. The additional funding means Essex Police Department will add two new officers on July 1 instead of waiting six months for the second position.
Resident Robert Bates, who requested the addition, said he was “horrified” to learn of the department’s current staffing woes, which The Reporter detailed in a story last week.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Bates said. His amendment passed after a standing vote of 147 to 95.
The addition pushed the general fund budget for fiscal year 2019 to $14.34 million, an increase of about $640,000, or 4.67 percent, over the current year. Voters passed the amended budget with a majority voice vote.
The projected tax impact prior to the addition was a $41 increase for homeowners with a $280,000 property value. The updated impact projection was not provided prior to The Reporter’s deadline.
Salaries and benefits make up over 97 percent of the increase and include four new full-time positions: a human resources director, an information technology technician and now two cops.
The selectboard had delayed start dates for the cop and the IT position to lessen the impact on this year’s budget. The village is expected to pay 34 percent of salaries for both the IT and HR positions.
The budget also creates full-time positions for a now-part-time assistant parks foreman and a public works
employee that will be split between highway and water/wastewater (that work is currently being performed by temporary employees.)
Salary costs also include a 3.5 percent raise for existing employees, though the town says actual raises are based on merit.
The approved operating budget includes a $350,000 transfer into the capital plan. Projects proposed for FY19 include: removal of a collapsed building at Tree Farm, a building facilities needs assessment, various road improvements, highway vehicles and other heavy equipment, replacement of park assets, various sidewalk and stormwater projects; replacement of all information management equipment and a new water line in Fort Ethan Allen.
Voters approved an article asking to create a conservation reserve fund that will help offset legal costs incurred when donating land to the town. A policy passed in January also allows the outright purchases of land and matching contributions for conservation projects.
Voters approved the next article, too, which sets aside $15,000 of municipal taxes for the fund.
A proposal to create a similar fund in the early ’90s failed to garner such support due to lacking detail on how the money would be spent and concerns over how a $100,000 appropriation would impact taxes.
The fund will now require conservation of specific resources, including wildlife habitats, surface waters, scenic views, public trails and historic features, as well as minimizing sprawl. It can also be used to reimburse costs for appraisals, surveys and inventories of conserved land; restore damaged natural areas and to create land management plans.
Beyond business items, the annual meeting served as a changing of the guard for the town. Pat Scheidel, who officially retired from his post as joint municipal manager last week, earned a standing ovation from the mostly filled auditorium before receiving a pair of resolutions: one from the local boards and one from the local delegation passed by the Vt. House of Representatives.
“I would just like to thank you all for all of the support you have provided,” Scheidel said. “Not only to me, but the good people that are here every single first Monday in March. Somebody a whole lot smarter than me said, ‘You don’t work a day in your life if you love the work that you do.’
“It has been that way for me here,” he added.
Meanwhile, new municipal manager Evan Teich attended regular meetings for both the town and village last week and experienced his first annual meeting Monday night.
Teich called the process “very interesting” and said the meeting was well moderated, well presented and contained some “good public comment.”
He said the funding request shows that while selectboard try to be as frugal as it can for “the times that we’re in.”
“Sometimes the public has a stronger opinion, and is willing to put their dollars to work,” he said.
Police Chief Rick Garey told The Reporter last week his staffing shortage is impacting proactive policing efforts and jeopardizing employee morale. When asked how it felt to see voters’ response, he said he’s proud and grateful.
“It’s going to make an immediate impact,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted Monday night and has been updated to reflect Tuesday’s results and information released Wednesday about the recount.