[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.]
#1 What we call our municipalities
If you are traveling on Interstate 89 or 91, you will see signs for White River Junction. White River Junction is not a city, it’s not a town, it’s not really even its own municipality. White River Junction is an unincorporated village, the largest of five that exist within the Town of Hartford, Vermont. But you’ll see more signs for White River Junction on 89 or 91 than for Hartford.
This is because historically, just like the Village of Essex Junction, White River Junction served as a rail hub. Back in the 1840s it was the most important rail hub in Vermont, seeing 50 different passenger trains daily. Local use dictated the name of that community over 150 years ago, and that’s still the identity it has today, even though it is one part of a larger municipality.
Last merger effort, considerable anxiety was created thinking about what the merged community could be called. But ideally, the names of our two municipalities don’t have to change at all. The Village of Essex Junction could simply unincorporate, and be just like White River Junction--not an official municipality, but still someplace everybody knows by name. The Village’s 126-year identity as a rail hub--a well-deserved source of pride--does not have to go away if we merge. The community feel Village residents love won’t change simply by becoming unincorporated.
The Town of Essex, which currently contains an incorporated village, could simply remain the Town of Essex, only with an unincorporated village. The merger plan could call for a new charter for the Town of Essex, and dissolve the Village charter to make it unincorporated. The rural character Town residents love would not change simply by including an unincorporated village.
#2 How we relate to the services we get from our municipalities
In late June, the Selectboard and Village Trustees met with the department heads of almost all our municipal departments for a day-long meeting to plan for the proposed merger process. But we also came together to better understand each other. Municipal staff were very forthcoming and spoke earnestly about their concerns, critiques, and hopes for the future of Greater Essex.
One of their biggest concerns was identity--not about the potential name of a merged community, but the identity of their departments, and how their staff members and the public they serve perceive them. The sincerity and urgency with which our staff presented their concerns emphasized for every elected official in the room that identity is of paramount importance and must be handled with great care.
When we talk about identity here in Greater Essex, we not only think about the name of our community; we also think about the special relationships we have with certain services or locations in the community.
For example, fire trucks from the Town of Essex fire department are a handsome combination of red and black. Fire trucks in the Village of Essex Junction are red and white. Together they serve the whole community, but they are housed in different places. The Essex Free Library is a beautiful, quiet, peaceful place, a small town library with a small town character. The Brownell Library is at the heart of Five Corners; a bustling, energetic place often overflowing with patrons of all ages. Sand Hill Pool is a small, calm place that’s great for young families and others who want a peaceful atmosphere for swimming. Maple Street Pool is much bigger, sees large crowds daily, and hosts dozens and dozens of swimming lessons all summer long. It’s a very busy place. It’s a very different kind of pool from Sand Hill.
All of those identities are precious to our community. The important thing to remember when we discuss merger is that the goal is for absolutely none of that to change. It is so important to all of us that our favorite library remains exactly the way it is. It is so important to all of us that the fire department that we volunteer for remains the same. And it’s really important for those community services that we use and identify with to remain the same. That is a primary goal of merger.
That is not to say that we will not seek efficiencies as Town and Village departments continue to work more closely together. We must make sure the services all of us are used to receiving continue--and at the high quality we expect. But we must be sure we are providing those services efficiently and affordably. And we must ensure that they are all paid for appropriately, and that all residents have equal access to them. We want to take our departments, whose services we so heavily rely upon, into the future in a way that maintains what makes them so precious to us--a way that allows us to continue to identify with them as we always have.
Becoming one community does not mean those identities will change. It’s entirely possible for the Town of Essex, after merger, to still be called the Town of Essex. And it’s entirely possible for the Village of Essex Junction, after merger, to still be called the Village of Essex Junction--the only difference is that after merger it would be an unincorporated village, and therefore could no longer collect its own taxes. Which is the whole point of merger--to simplify how we pay for all of our services and amenities by unifying under one government structure--while still maintaining the quality, spirit, and identity of the services we rely upon.
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 email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.