To Merge or not to merge: The Essex question
I’m a Village of Essex Junction business owner who resides in rural Essex.
When Town residents voted to not merge in 2007 I thought that was the end of it. I now realize that a merger initiative is moving ahead quickly.
To get informed I attended two Governance Subcommittee meetings held at 8AM on Fridays. Committee members are in the process of finalizing material for focus group conversations called “Listening Sessions”. I thought, Perfect!
I’ve been pondering an alternative to a merger that could solve the taxation and representation issues that seem the primary cause of all the friction I read about. Maybe a different alternative, than those being considered, could be presented at the “Listening Sessions”.
Unfortunately, the Subcommittee appears locked into two merger alternatives for the “Listening Sessions”. Consequently these “Listening Sessions” are more like “Choosing Sessions”. I was told that listening to, or offering, a significantly different alternative at the focus group will not be an option at this point.
It’s been 12 years since the 2007 “no” vote. So who still wants merger and why? At the last Governance Subcommittee meeting I asked. No one could articulate an “Elevator Pitch” even though it has been on at least two agendas. Puzzling!
The bulk of the Governance Subcommittee’s time was spent on how to present the two merger alternatives at the “Listening Sessions”. Specifically, how to mitigate the consequences of tax shifting. Staff also reminded that no one can promise cost reduction through merger.
Based on my brief exposure to the current merger effort, if you were to ask me why merge? I would say the main reason is obvious: Taxes. The Governance Subcommittee can’t seem to articulate this even though it spends most of its time talking about tax consequences and how to “solve” it.
The taxation situation we have now stems from historic decisions that probably made sense at the time. Bottom line, a merger will likely result in village residents paying less, and outside the village residents likely paying more in taxes. I believe this is the primary reason driving the merger project and also the primary problem.
If Village residents resent paying taxes to the Town, and Town Outside the Village residents don’t want to pay for services the Village deems necessary and both want to retain their unique identity and have representation from within; I see an obvious solution.
If the Town of Essex no longer included the Village of Essex Junction, what might happen? What is currently the Town Outside the Village would have a smaller tax base but would only need to provide services to its reduced area and population. It could retain its name, the Town of Essex, and its residents would decide future development and the character of its identity.
The Village, if separate from the Town will have to change its name and adjust its charter. In Vermont a village cannot exist outside of a town. The Village of Essex Junction could now be simply Essex Junction. Its identity would be preserved and no longer vulnerable to change as it would in a merged town.
Taxwise, Essex Junction would have the same tax base it has now and, if the total tax rate did not change, the Village would have more revenue since Town of Essex taxes go away.
Both municipalities would now be independent, tax wise. If the smaller Town decides to change taxes it will no longer impact the Village as it does now.
Representation is simplified. Each municipality can keep its existing governing body and elect members from its respective non-overlapping population.
What about combined services like Police? Plenty of precedent here. Regional organizations like the Chittenden Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) already provide services to Essex residents by charging a per capita fee. What if the Essex Police Department became a larger stand-alone regional organization providing police and dispatch services to Essex, Essex Junction, Westford and Jericho? That’s an economy of scale that might actually add up to savings.
The current overlapping nature of our municipalities and its tax consequences appear to be the primary barriers to merger. Non-overlapping municipalities, is an obvious solution that
• Untangles the Village / Town tax entanglement;
• Allows the Town-outside-the-village (TOV) and Village to retain their unique identities and control their own futures;
• Provides governmental representation for the TOV and Village each from their respective pool of residents and
• Ends any jurisdiction the current Town has over the Village.
No need for changes to shooting ordinance
Got a hazard placard for the dihydrogen monoxide (suffocation risk) in your garden hose? Speaking of gardens, have you filed to plant those nightshade plants (risk of poisoning)? Are you sure your shed is permitted for the lawn mowers (cutting risk) and power tools (electrical risk) you have? This is just inflammatory sensationalism, right? The town would never care about any of this stuff, never mind try to regulate these, eh?
Well, the shooting range question for residents started out with the board simply wondering how many they have in town. I don’t think they wonder about how many garden hoses, tomato plants or lawnmowers/power tools there are, but, okay, I’m still willing to answer that range question right here.
I live on Old Pump Road a stone’s throw from Jericho, and my family has been sighting and shooting our rifles, shotguns, pistols, bows, and all other legal weapons safely and without incident here since 1948 on our private property. Just passed 70 years, 100% safety record on land I don’t post, often visited by neighbors, friends and family all through the year. Probably the same safety record (or better) than the history most folks have with any of the items listed above.
I get along with and love my neighbors like family. I have no complaints lodged against me. I’m a regular, average citizen just doing my thing like you are. It’s starting to look like the board doesn’t view me this way anymore. I’m getting more concerned. In my opinion, the current board is not listening to facts. Never mind about the 14th article of the Vermont constitution; ever hear of the 7th article? They are going down the path of trying to single out a selected group of residents and treat them differently solely for the benefit of another selected group of residents.
This isn’t the Essex I’m used to. This isn’t how you persuade me, living in the far less populated part of town, to get behind merging with the more densely settled village. It also isn’t how you show me, a rural neighbor, that a board weighed with urban neighbors is willing to rule “fair and impartially, weighing facts and all the information” for the benefit of ALL neighbors.
What’s next, regulations about what kind of friends I can have over based on an arbitrary standard? Criteria about what kind of religion I intend to practice or not based on a news report? Instructions about what kind of food I intend to eat from hearsay? Neighbors, you better get to the public hearing on the Firearms Ordinance and really weigh in on how some of the proposed changes are going to affect you.
I’ll say it again: the board already spent $10,000 and tens of thousands more of our money on staff time and lawyer fees to determine the clear majority choice in Essex was NO CHANGE to the Firearms Ordinance. Should have been the end right there, don’t you think, especially with all the bigger issues going on that actually DO affect us all? Why are they continuing down a path that is so contentious, and could potentially have significant unknown future costs, when the facts support no need?
Shooting ordinance a waste of taxpayer money
On July 15, 2019 the Essex Selectboard voted 4-1 to approve changes to the Firearms Ordinance. For nearly two years this topic has been passionately debated in public and online forums as well as Selectboard meetings. Final passage will most likely take place at the upcoming August 19 Selectboard public hearing to be held at 7:45 pm in the Essex High School Cafeteria.
There has been more involvement in this debate than any other issue confronting our community. Even more so than the merger. At each forum and Selectboard meeting the overwhelming majority of residents have expressed “NO CHANGE” to the firearms ordinance. Despite this, your five elected Selectboard members have ignored the will of the people and forged ahead believing they know what’s best for you and your family.
The Selectboard has wasted your taxpayer dollars by spending $10,000 for a moderator of the online forum, PlaceSpeak, and thousands of dollars paying Town staff to conduct research to support their agenda.
Once the ordinance has passed, the Town Charter allows for residents to petition the Town to warn a town-wide Australian ballot vote. This process takes it out of the hands of the Selectboard and gives residents a say in what’s right for their community. The cost to you the taxpayer for this special vote will be another $10,000. Again, the Selectboard will be wasting more of your hard earned money on a misguided agenda.
The Selectboard is using the firearms ordinance as a means to infringe upon your personal property rights, all at your expense. What will be next?
Call or write your Selectboard members, and attend the August 19 public hearing to voice your opinion. Demand they vote for “NO CHANGE” and put a stop to the misuse of your taxpayer money.
Representation issue must be solved before merger decision
Two issues stood out from George Tyler’s “Kumbaya” article that need elucidation.
First, while much has been done to consolidate services, for the most part, these were the easy bits. Now the discussions are centering around more onerous issues, such as tax structure and governance. These wide-ranging issues strike heated debate and division. For examples, see some of the threads on the Essex Facebook page.
Second, in the current discussions, the Selectboard represents the entire Town (including the Village) and the Trustees represent only the Village. Starkly missing is a Board that solely represents only Town outside the Village (TOV) taxpayers. Without such a Board directly involved in merger discussions on an equal footing with the Trustees, the tables are unquestionably slanted. I have been calling for such a board for over a month, and while the idea has gained some currency on the Essex Facebook page, in Essex Reporter letters to the editor, and on this forum, nothing has been done (as far as I know) with the Selectboard even considering such a Board. Mr Tyler is afforded the luxury of speaking before such meetings about the needs of the Village. There is no equal voice advocating for TOV residents. Simply examine the Greater Essex 2020 infographic with an open mind to see just how slanted the ongoing discussions are advancing.
I will say it again: All discussions should be halted until a TOV Board (comprised of five TOV residents voted in by only TOV residents) has been formed and can participate in merger discussions on an equal basis. If it’s trust we’re after, then adding a TOV Board paves a clear path.