Merger. Consolidation. Tax equity. Representation.
Buzzwords often surface when the trustees and selectboard meet, and their April 25 gathering was no different. But as they chiseled through a discussion older than any of their individual tenures, officials eventually voiced a shared vision: To them, the future of Essex and Essex Jct. is a single municipality.
If a merger is the finish line, last month’s meeting was the pre-marathon meal.
Most officials share different views on what decisions must come first, and there’s no telling if residents would even support the move. Memories of the 2006-7 merger attempt still creep into meetings, though most officials seem uninterested in rehashing decades-old debates.
That the village and town have been inching toward a merged community is no secret. Officials have long said one of the biggest takeaways from the failed merger is that a bottom-up approach is key to approval. The shared services initiative has done just that: consolidating low-hanging fruit and intertwining village and town services like public works, finance and the municipal manager.
They’ve done so with bumps in the road (read: recreation district), but the spirit of collaboration on April 25 earned the respect of several in attendance, like resident Jim Bernegger, who said he was encouraged to have finally seen “a single point of view.”
Unified manager Evan Teich even suggested more meetings — a rare stance for a municipal employee.
“I don’t mind the idea of extra meetings, because I think this meeting was very good,” he said. “It brought out a lot of good comments and a lot of good suggestions. I would hate for that to dissipate.”
But the boards now find themselves facing down two of the biggest obstacles in the way toward a full merger: governance and taxes. And there’s disagreement on which to tackle first.
For selectwoman Irene Wrenner, the first step is to secure buy-in from town-outside-the-village residents by affording them representation equal to the village.
Wrenner presented a petition April 25 that called on the selectboard to study “representation imbalances” and work to reform those so town-outside-the-village residents have an independent voice in municipal matters. The petition had 280 signatures at the time.
Wrenner further explained her rationale during a selectboard agenda item Monday night.
She said the current governance structure disadvantages town-outside-the-village residents because unlike villagers, they have no elected official whose sole responsibility is to represent their interests.
She notes that might not be problematic when the board decides town-wide issues. But some issues only impact the town-outside-the-village, she said, and equal teams at the negotiating table will be vital as the two municipalities continue toward a merger.
Even if the selectboard could represent town-outside-the-village interests, villagers hold a 2-to-1 advantage in joint meeting settings, Wrenner said.
She suggested either creating an overlay district that would give town-outside-the-village residents their own representative, or the selectboard could double in size to accommodate five village trustees and five outside-the-village representatives who act separately on “hyperlocal” items.
Wrenner found little support from the board.
Selectman Michael Plageman said he’d prefer to see a 10-member board but felt it was a decision that needed to include the trustees.
“This is not something that you can do by just flying at the seat of your pants,” he said. “I’m not going to support a temporary, quick fix.”
Selectman Andy Watts said Wrenner’s suggestion to create another village-like entity within the town sounds “more like a separation than a unification.” And he reiterated a stance he’s voiced whenever Wrenner raises representation concerns: He resents being told he doesn’t represent all residents equally.
Selectwoman and village trustee Elaine Haney Sopchak said the governing bodies are already addressing the issues Wrenner raised.
“We would all like to ask you to have some patience,” she said. “Come aboard the boat with the rest of us and do the work that we need to do.”
Chairman Max Levy noted Wrenner’s petition wasn’t even necessary: “The selectmen can bring these things up by themselves to the board. You don’t need signatures,” he said.
Mona Sheppard challenged this assertion, saying, “You want to hear from us only if we tell you what you want to hear,” she said.
“We hear you. We do,” Levy told the crowd.
“No you don’t,” came a response from the audience.
Wrenner’s arguments, however, did find more backing from some residents in the room.
“You need to listen to what Ms. Wrenner is saying,” resident John Larkin said. “She’s got some very good points. Sometimes I suspect that she’s not being heard.”
The two boards will host another joint meeting May 14. They’ve asked individual members to send in comments about a staff work plan and future committees, where they think more expertise is needed, and their first three priorities.
They’ll also work to define certain words that will inevitably surface throughout the journey ahead and will share ideas about governance and representation.
Not everyone sees those topics as the first step, however, like trustee Lori Houghton, who wants to first address tax equity.
Right now, village residents pay taxes to support both the village and town general fund budgets. According to the 2017 village annual report, village residents with an average home value of $280,000 paid $2,266 in municipal taxes — $867 more than town-outside-the-village residents.
Meanwhile, the village shares responsibility with the town to provide services for the entire community, village president George Tyler said.
“We’re not being compensated,” he said. “The people in the village are the only ones being taxed to provide our portion of our services.”
Houghton said she wants all residents paying the same taxes, which would require town-outside-the-village residents to take on a bigger share. Until then, it will be difficult to get past the status quo, she said.
Because it’s unclear what efficiencies would result from a merger, it’s difficult to project exactly how that modified tax impact would shake out. But selectman Watts said moving the village’s $3.4 million budget into the town’s budget would mean a 13-cent tax increase for town-outside-the-village residents.
Under that scenario, the owner of a $280,000 home would see about a $368 increase, finance director Lauren Morrisseau said.
Noting that sizeable increase, Tyler said a phased-in approach would ensure both municipalities support further consolidation efforts.
Whichever first step the boards choose, all officials understand the importance of public buy-in. They frequently mentioned the need for outreach, highlighted by a facilitated forum in March that saw several dozen residents offer input.
Some called for more representation, others for less government. Some asked for patience, others for haste. And many desired respect from both their elected officials and fellow residents, urging an end to the divisions that have defined the town and village for decades.
Among all the details that need to be sorted out, that may be the most difficult of all.
“It seems like we have a gaping wound in our community, and it’s this merger idea,” resident Lynn Smith said at the March 24 forum. “And right now, we’ve been trying to put Band-Aids on it.
“We need to do surgery.”