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 ELAINE HANEY & GEORGE TYLER
Seventy years ago, the residents of the Town of Essex in the area near the Essex Free Library realized they needed to create a water district. The population had grown so that sewers and a fire department were necessary. Vermont House bill 150 of 1949 enabled properties belonging to about four dozen specific landowners to comprise a new village. The Vermont Legislature approved the formation of the Village of Essex Center on March 31, 1949.
The new Village’s sole purpose and authority was for the creation and maintenance of a water system and fire department–essentially, a water district. It had the authority to tax its citizens for the purpose of establishing the water system (and, specifically, nothing else), and also could bond for up to $200,000 for the same purpose. It had a board of trustees and was required to hold an annual meeting. In the same bill the new Village was also empowered to maintain a fire department. The new Village was to officially form once the voters approved it at a special meeting, which happened on April 27, 1949. The creation of the Village of Essex Center was approved by a vote of 27 to 15.
By the 1970s, surrounding towns had also created their own water districts, and water management became a regional concern. The Chittenden Water District (CWD) was chartered by the Legislature in 1971 and went online in 1973, serving 12 municipalities including Essex and Essex Junction. With the creation of the CWD, the Village of Essex Center water district was no longer needed. Town voters approved the merger of the Village of Essex Center and the Town of Essex (including assuming existing debt of $48,000) on March 1, 1976. CWD became the Town’s official water district, the fire department became part of the Town, and the Village of Essex Center was dissolved.
Some have said that the residents of the rural areas of the Town of Essex once governed themselves, and the Village of Essex Center should be revived. But the Village of Essex Center was never a multi-service municipal government; it was strictly intended to provide a limited service to a limited area of the town that the Essex Town government couldn’t provide without placing an undue burden on the rest of the community to pay for a service that wouldn’t be available to them. It was quickly eliminated by the voters when it was no longer needed. There are some who suggest that if the rural area of the Town had its own board, representation would be more fair. After all, residents of the Village of Essex Junction have their own board.
The Village of Essex Junction was first formed so residents could tax themselves for necessary services–just like the Village of Essex Center. But over time Essex Junction grew, its residents wanted more services, and they increased the amount of taxes they paid to get those services. Eventually those services included a public works department, administrative management, community planning, a library–all things a growing community needs. The Village of Essex Junction was not getting these things from the Town of Essex, which for the first several decades of the Village’s existence was fine, since the Town had a significantly smaller population and did not need to provide all those services for itself.
Village of Essex Junction residents taxed themselves for the things they needed and were not getting. The Village of Essex Center residents did the same–until CWD provided the water management they needed. Once CWD took over, residents voted to dissolve the Village of Essex Center because all their other needs were being provided by the Town. They no longer needed another governmental body with its own board taxing for a service being provided by another entity.
Creating a new legislative body that solely represents the rural parts of the Town is not as simple as just “creating a new board.” It must have a particular, currently unmet need or purpose, because this area of the Town is already part of an established municipality, already pays taxes for the services it receives, and is already represented by the Selectboard. A new board would have no actual legislative or policy making authority, no taxing authority or fiduciary responsibilities, and thus no accountability to the voters. Nor could it take this authority away from the Town to wield it itself.
Another recent suggestion is that the Town and Village should simply be split into two separate municipalities, the logic being that since the Village is its own municipality, the rural area outside the Village could also become one. Remember however, that Village residents are also Town residents, and 42% of the total Town budget is paid for by Village residents. So if a second municipality were to be formed in the same area as the former Village of Essex Center, and it didn’t include Village of Essex Junction residents, then taxes for the residents of the new municipality would have to increase to cover the 42% no longer being supplied by Village residents. That is a very expensive proposition, far more expensive than a merger would be.
Being an incorporated village within a town has financial implications: you must pay to be in it. Reviving an old, single-purpose municipality simply to form another board is duplicative and expensive because the Town already provides (and Town taxpayers already pay for) all the services its residents need. Adding another government is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with merger. It will be far more efficient and less costly to create a single governing board that represents the entire greater Essex community, maintains a single grand list, taxes residents based on that single grand list, and operates a single administration with a minimum of duplication. Appropriate representation will be an essential component of any proposed merger plan.
Let’s not forget how much savings and operational efficiencies we’ve already achieved through collaboration and consolidation. Remember that all our discussions about merger (and all municipal board meetings) are open to the public and offer ample opportunities for citizens to participate and tell us what’s on their minds.
Many thanks to Town and Village wastewater, public works, and clerk’s office staff who provided information on the formation of the CWD and history of the Village of Essex Center. Dates and other details were located in old Town of Essex annual reports and The Suburban List (our local paper before The Essex Reporter). And many thanks to the Vermont Department of Libraries for locating the original charter of the Village of Essex Center.
Visit www.GreaterEssex2020.org for ongoing updates. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.