By Elaine Haney and George Tyler
If you are a Harry Potter fan, then you know the importance of naming things for what they are. Lord Voldemort held a terrifying thrall over those who could refer to him only as He Who Must Not Be Named. But Voldemort could not hold power over those brave few who were not afraid to speak his name. As Albus Dumbledore wisely said, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
We have a similar word in our community: merger. We’ve heard some people say we should not use this word because it brings back bad memories of the last time we tried to merge, or that it raises peoples’ hackles, or that it is not actually what we are doing. In the years since the last merger vote, multiple substitutes have been introduced and used interchangeably: consolidation, alignment, unification, partnership, and more. Now that we are deeply investigating our communities’ future together, it is time to get the language right. Words matter.
When Selectboard members, Village Trustees, and municipal staff use the word alignment, generally that means taking two similar but separate things and making them identical in order to make them work the same way. A good example of this is local ordinances. Currently the Essex Police must enforce two different sets of ordinances–one for the Village and one for the Town–and there are many differences between the two. This makes things very complicated for officers while on duty. They have to be sure they are following the right ordinances depending on where they are located at the time. Aligning the laws of both municipalities whenever possible makes it easier for them to do their jobs and ensure public safety.
We use the word consolidation to describe bringing together two similar but separate entities in order to eliminate duplication and accomplish economies of scale, financial savings, and more efficient organizational structure. An example of this is the multi-year process we have undergone to consolidate the Town and Village public works departments. In 2015 Town and Village voters approved moving the Village’s public works budget into the Town’s budget. This vote consolidated the public works budgets and spread the cost for both evenly across all Town taxpayers. Each department still has its own logo on their trucks, but they share equipment and trainings. All this has been done while maintaining the current high level of service that our residents expect.
Consolidation goes only so far however. We have also consolidated the Town and Village finance departments. But because we are still two separate municipalities, our finance department must keep two very big, very complicated sets of books, and two separate budgets. Money flows back and forth between the Town and Village every day. It’s challenging to keep track of and it’s not as transparent as it should be. Consolidation in this case is great up to a point, but for improved efficiency, transparency, and cost savings, a single set of books and a single budget would be far better.
What’s left are unification and merger.
Unification is probably the closest in meaning to merger of all our interchangeable words. Two separate entities are brought together to create a single, joined entity. It sounds nicer than merger though, doesn’t it? For some, merger implies that one entity is swallowed up by the other, like a hostile corporate takeover. But the fact is, merger is a legitimate term for what we are considering doing. And it does not mean that the Village of Essex Junction would cease to exist–it would just not be incorporated, like the Village of White River Junction for example. Whether we choose a single community with a single charter, or we go with a single charter and up to two special taxing districts, both could be considered a merger. We should not be afraid to use this word.
In fact, by law we are required to use the word merger. When a town and its incorporated village decide to form a single municipality, Vermont statute calls this a merger (see 24 V.S.A. 49 § 1481-1487). The involved municipalities must prepare a “plan of merger,” which must be presented to voters for approval, and if approved, must also be presented to the Legislature for approval.
Therefore it is very important that we continue to use the word merger in this process. If we were to avoid using the “m-word,” and substitute something benign like unification, then voters would be justifiably surprised and probably angry if they were handed a ballot asking them to approve a plan of merger. We need to be entirely forthright in this process and call what we’re doing what it is. Let’s not avoid facing our challenges–let’s name them and meet them.
You can now visit www.GreaterEssex2020.org for ongoing updates. We will make additions and improvements to this site over the next many months. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. You can also reach out to our municipal manager, Evan Teich, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The Reporter is providing the trustees and selectboard a regular space to discuss consolidation-related issues. Want to respond to something in the column? Send a letter to email@example.com.