The Village of Essex Junction is an incorporated municipality within the Town of Essex. The governments of the two municipalities, the Town and the Village, have been consolidating services and departments since 2013, and are now exploring the concept of a complete merger.
By George Tyler
Board of Trustees Vice President
By a wide margin the results of an open-ended community survey show that taxes are the chief concern among Town of Essex residents (including Village of Essex Junction residents) when they think about local government. Concerns about economic development and traffic/infrastructure are the next biggest concerns. A possible Town-Village merger rounded out the issues mentioned by more than ten percent of respondents.
The online survey taken by 690 Town residents (including 278 respondents coming from the Village, and 7 respondents unsure whether they live inside or outside the Village) was conducted by the independent marketing group Kelliher Samets Volk (KSV) as part of a market research effort on behalf of the Essex Junction and Essex Town governments.
Why a Survey?
The Village Trustees and Essex Selectboard hired KSV as part of our ongoing public engagement effort about local governance and a potential merger of the Town and Village. People outside the government may wonder why we’ve reopened the merger question after so many previous failures. Here’s why.
In a bid to encourage community cost sharing in 2012, the two boards agreed to ask Town voters to pick up part of the tab for a new Village fire truck that would also be available to respond to calls in the Town beyond the Village boundaries. The voters said yes. Building on this success, the boards then agreed to try sharing a manager, followed by integrating the Town and Village billing and finance services, municipal clerks, and highway departments. These significant efficiencies were achieved by contractual arrangements between the two governments that were vetted at public meetings and accepted by voters when they approved municipal budgets at Town and Village annual meetings. Despite claims by some critics, there’s been no lack of transparency.
But contractual arrangements and administrative streamlining only go so far. Our network of services that directly or indirectly serve the entire Essex community still has two separate lines of authority: the Village Trustees and Town Selectboard. That’s why, in 2017, the two boards opened a new round of dialogue about retooling our local governments to accommodate new ideas about representation, ease of voting, accessibility, and service efficiency. The boards looked to minimize the Village vs. Town flavor of past merger efforts by taking upon themselves the task of investigating a merger plan rather than appointing a committee of ‘town outside the village’ and ‘town inside the village’ citizens to do it. They agreed to work slowly and with as much dialogue and openness with the community as resources would allow. The KSV survey is part of that effort.
The Tax Conundrum
It’s no surprise that taxes topped the list of concerns facing the Town and Village. Complicating the issue of taxes in the Essex community is that we have a bi-level, Town-Village tax structure that evolved gradually during the 20th century as both communities grew. All Town and Village property owners are taxed by the Essex Town government to pay for Town services (with the exception of a highway tax levied only on property owners outside the Village), but the Essex Junction government can only tax Village citizens to pay for Village services. This two-tiered approach made sense in earlier times when municipal services were sparse and used mostly by Village residents. It became strained as the need for more extensive fire, police, recreation, library, and other government services became community-wide, prompting the fraught and failed merger attempts of the past.
As expected, a detailed reading of the tax-related comments in the KSV survey shows that Village residents want tax relief from the burden of paying about 43% of the Town’s costs plus all of the Village’s costs; Town residents fear a hefty tax increase if merger requires them to start paying for Village services. These opposing views make perfect sense. Add to the mix that both sides are also sharing the cost of one of the state’s most expensive school districts and it’s no wonder that taxes rose to the top of the survey. That’s the Essex Town-Village tax conundrum.
What Can We Do?
First, let’s look at the positive side. We all now equally share the cost of some of our most expensive and important services – police, public works, central administration. Our momentum is carrying us in the right direction. Adding other services to the shared services list, such as fire departments and infrastructure repairs, might be acceptable if it’s done fairly and gradually. The Selectboard and Trustees have also asked our shared staff to explore ways to phase in or minimize the tax impacts of various merger scenarios so that the benefits far outweigh the bite.
We don’t have a merger plan yet; we want to use the concerns and hopes expressed by residents in the KSV survey, in focus groups, and in future outreach efforts, to guide us in creating a plan that appeals to most Town and Village residents and does the greatest good. It might call for an immediate restructuring of some things and a gradual five- or ten-year phase-in of others.
We have no illusions that we’ll make everyone happy. The survey results told us, however, that 7 in 10 residents are “very much” or “somewhat in favor of merger.” Only 2 in 10 are “very much” or “somewhat not in favor of a merger.” Some survey respondents seem to want a “town outside the village” vs. “town inside the village” political battle, with winners and losers, us against them. That’s not going to happen. We want to focus on working with and learning from the 7 in 10 residents who are generally supportive of merger, while also addressing the concerns residents have. Our aim is gradual compromise, collaboration, engagement. Boring perhaps, but effective and fair. The robust survey response from citizens throughout the community shows we’re on the right track. We’ve received the message that taxes are your number one concern and we’ll carry it forward as we continue our efforts.
We’ll be sharing more survey results in the coming weeks and will post all the results online as soon as we can at GreaterEssex2020.org. We want to thank all those who took time to respond and we hope you and your neighbors will take the more detailed community survey we’ll be rolling out this fall. Thanks for your patience and for supporting our efforts to build a stronger, more resilient community for the new century.