[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.]
Now is a good time to pause and review some of the questions about merger we’ve heard so far. Below is a recap, as well as background material that was included in the recent resident surveys--this is factual information about our communities that residents who did not take the surveys may not have seen.
The Village Board of Trustees and Town Selectboard believe we will be stronger together as one united community. We can work as one to plan for the future, attract and retain a vibrant business community, protect our natural resources, restore and enhance our infrastructure, improve our services, overcome challenges we face, and establish ourselves as Vermont’s premier livable community.
Why is it important to use the word “merger?”
In general, a merger is when two separate entities are brought together to create a single, joined entity. If voters decide we should form a unified community, 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 Vermont Legislature for approval.
Aren’t we already one community?
Greater Essex is comprised of two municipalities: the Town of Essex and the incorporated Village of Essex Junction. Each has its own governing body. The Selectboard represents the Town, and the Trustees represent the Village. Vermont statute requires that villages-within-towns (also known as incorporated villages) have their own governing bodies.
Haven’t we already merged?
No. Currently, the Town and Village function together on the following services: municipal manager’s office, clerk’s office, police department, finance department, public works department, assessor’s office, and senior center. The Town and Village still budget separately for these services: fire departments, libraries, community development, parks and recreation, capital planning, elected and appointed boards.
Why not just stop there?
That is a possibility. Should the community opt not to merge, the contractual arrangements and administrative streamlining accomplished so far could be codified into the charters of the Village and the Town. But the network of services that directly or indirectly serve the entire Essex community would still have two separate lines of authority: the Trustees and Selectboard. Stopping short of merger would not address concerns about equitable taxation, representation, ease of voting, community-wide planning, accessibility to services, and service efficiency.
How are residents of the Town and Village defined?
The geographic boundary of the Town includes the Village. Village residents are also residents of the Town. However, residents of the Town who do not live within the borders of the Village are not residents of the Village.
How would merger affect my property taxes?
Residents of the Town outside the Village currently pay municipal taxes only to the Town.
Residents of the Village of Essex Junction currently pay municipal taxes to both the Village and Town.
The amount Essex homeowners owe in municipal tax is based on the assessed home value:
- A resident of the Town outside the Village with a home value of $280,000 pays a total of $1,510.88 in municipal taxes.
- A resident of the Village of Essex Junction with a home value of $280,000 pays a total of $2,405.76 in municipal taxes.
The Town and Village coming together means the two different levels of taxation meet somewhere between the two. This requires the lower of the two rates (Town) to rise as the higher of the two rates (Village) falls. How quickly this would happen is a matter for the voters to decide.
All residents of Essex, whether in the Village or the Town outside the Village, pay the same rate in education taxes. Education tax rates would not be impacted by merger.
Only users of municipal water and sewer pay for these services. Residents in parts of Essex that do not have municipal water or sewer service do not pay for those services or their associated infrastructure.
Any remaining debt owed by the Village municipality will stay with the properties in the Village. A temporary “Village Debt Assessment District” would be established and sunset once the debt is paid in full by Village residents.
Why do Village residents get to be on the Town Selectboard?
Because they are Town residents, Village residents have the right to vote on how Town government spends their tax dollars. They also have the right to run for election to sit on the Town Selectboard. The Town charter specifies that all members of the Selectboard are to be elected at-large. This means that there are no special voting districts or wards that put forth candidates. Anyone who is an adult resident of Essex, including Village residents, can run for a seat on the Selectboard.
Does it matter if the Selectboard members live in any particular area of the Town?
When someone is elected to the Town Selectboard, by law they represent all residents of both the Village and Town. Where a candidate lives in the Town is not relevant because they are elected by the entire population (at-large) of the entire Town of Essex. That is because all Selectboard decisions affect the entire Town.
For 20 of the last 30 years, there have been 1-2 Village residents serving on the Selectboard. For 10 of the last 30 years, there have been zero Village residents serving on the Selectboard. Having three Village residents on the Selectboard currently is the first time this has happened in at least 30 years.
What about separating?
The Selectboard and Trustees created a governance subcommittee in July 2018 to explore governance options. The committee vetted over a dozen governance scenarios and determined that separation did not meet most of the criteria they established to measure what would benefit the community. Committee members at the time (Elaine Haney, Max Levy, George Tyler, and Irene Wrenner) unanimously agreed that separation would not improve relations or transparency, would not maintain a high level of service, would not enable tax equity, and basically failed the test the committee established. Both boards supported the committee’s recommendations. What’s more, all elected officials from both boards publicly stated their preference for one community and one government at a joint public meeting in April 2018. Both boards are exploring merger because it could allow for better use of scarce resources, to eliminate confusion for residents, and to save money over time.
Results of the second resident survey are currently being compiled. You’ll find a link to the results of the first survey and much more on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. 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.