Essex residents still have a little over a week to make up their mind as to how they’re going to vote in local elections. To help paint the picture for the races of the two selectboard seats on the ballot, the Reporter asked the candidates five questions on issues facing the town.
Tracey Delphia is running against incumbent Elaine Haney for the open three-year seat on the board while current selectboard member Dawn Hill-Fleury is being challenged by Mark Nadeau for a one-year seat that will complete another three-year term. Nadeau had not responded to the Reporter’s request for comment by the deadline for this story.
1. Do you think Essex should implement a local options tax, and why or why not?
DAWN HILL-FLEURY: “During this time of Covid and a tax increase for [town outside of the village] residents if merger passes, I cannot support a local options tax. I would, however, support learning more about it, the benefits and drawbacks, for possible implementation in the future.”
TRACEY DELPHIA: “When done correctly, a local options tax (LOT) reduces property taxes and dedicates revenue solely to specific projects such as improving roads and increasing connectivity. This cost of this reduction is spread across users of those systems -- including non-residents from other communities.
"LOT should not be a reaction to overspending, and I do not support applying to all sales-taxable items as this would negatively impact our seniors and those on fixed incomes. I do, however, feel rooms, meals and alcohol LOT is appropriate. These are discretionary expenses and wouldn’t greatly impact our community -- [example of] $0.50 for a $50 dining bill.”
ELAINE HANEY: “Yes. There are no other tools a municipality can implement that would increase revenue significantly enough to lower property taxes. The Selectboard has briefly discussed this tax in the past, and we need to do more research. But early calculations show that Essex would earn $1.3 million per year with the tax, which we could invest directly into infrastructure projects. This would lower the amount of taxes Essex residents pay for capital, allow us to move faster on needed projects, and spread the cost of those projects over all users of our streets, not just residents.
“We must talk with the business community in depth about the impact this tax might have on them, and communicate clearly with all residents what the impact would be. As one of the only towns in Chittenden County that doesn’t charge this tax, we are missing out on much-needed revenue.”
2. What are your thoughts on allowing Essex to have retail cannabis businesses?
ELAINE HANEY: “Last year when the Legislature authorized retail sale of cannabis, the Selectboard briefly discussed the need for a community conversation whether to allow it in Essex. Now the Legislature is requiring all towns to vote on whether to allow it. I expect that the Selectboard will consider holding this vote in November. Before we do that, I believe the community should discuss it together.
“When I was a Village Trustee, there was a lot of concern about smoke shops opening near the high school and the impact on students’ and residents’ health and behavior. That concern hasn’t gone away. We must also consider the impact on public safety and the cost of policing. Allowing retail sale of cannabis has consequences we must examine together before we decide to go down that road.”
DAWN HILL-FLEURY: “I have no problem with this as long as all regulations are followed. Many states have implemented this without any problems.”
TRACEY DELPHIA: “Retail cannabis, like alcohol and tobacco, will rely heavily on regulation to protect against underage use and other negative impacts. This topic will focus on appropriate siting of retail businesses, input from the community, and law enforcement implications.
"I have concerns with enforcement of impaired driving laws as there is currently no scientific standard which establishes impairment in relation to the amount of THC in the body -- the component in cannabis which produces the ‘high.’ Before deciding on this topic, we also need to look to data on whether instances of actual or suspected cannabis use while driving have increased since decriminalization.”
3. If the selecboard's plan for merger and the proposed charter is approved by voters this election cycle, what should the selectboard's role on the issue be moving forward?
TRACEY DELPHIA: “The Selectboard’s role is to enact or advocate for the will of the voters. The Selectboard, along with the unified manager and local state representatives, will need to advocate for the charter at the Legislature. They will also need to be involved in drafting a Request for Proposal for consultants to do the work of departmental reorganization and consolidation.
"This should be finalized in anticipation of charter passage to lay the groundwork to move forward. My experience with competitive bidding processes, contract negotiation, process and project management is well suited to carry out this work.”
ELAINE HANEY: “If merger passes, the Selectboard’s role is very clearly described in the charter. After a positive vote in Essex, the charter would have to be approved by the Legislature. Assuming that happens, the Selectboard and Village Trustees would join together to form an Interim Governing Board (IGB). This board would be responsible for starting to implement the terms of the merger charter. This includes aligning ordinances, appointing new planning commissioners, budgeting for the first year, and more. The IGB would last about 9-15 months, until a new, permanent Selectboard is elected.
"If merger passes, during the time we await the decision of the Legislature, the Selectboard would continue to do the work of the Town. We would also work with the Legislature to answer their questions as they consider reconciling the differences between the charter Town residents approve and the charter Village residents approved in November.”
DAWN HILL-FLEURY: “We will all work together as a transition team completing the work that needs to be done to complete the merger. We will complete the unfinished parts of the charter such as ordinance alignment.”
4. If the selectboard's plan for merger is defeated this election cycle, what -- if any -- role do you think the selectboard should have on the topic through the near future?
DAWN HILL-FLEURY: “We would need to hear from the taxpayers where they want us to go from here. We are elected to represent their wishes. They would need to provide the Selectboard with some direction. I would hope we would continue with the cost saving consolidation of services that have already occured.”
TRACEY DELPHIA: “The Selectboard’s role is to respect the will of the voters. Should merger be defeated, there will be work needed to ensure the relationship between the Town and Village remains amicable and productive by having open and honest discussions around potential next steps while engaging the community.
"The Village may wish to move forward with a separation discussion, and the Selectboard should be respectful of those discussions while also planning for the potential impact of a separation vote being successful. The Selectboard will also need to focus on addressing unfinished business as a matter of course.”
ELAINE HANEY: “If merger doesn’t pass, the Selectboard will continue to do the work of the entire Town. However, I am keenly aware that the status quo of the Town taxing half of our residents for services they already tax themselves for as a village cannot continue. I hope to continue working with our partners -- the Village Trustees -- to ensure all residents receive 100% of the services they are paying for. For example, we should examine and adjust how we collect and spend tax dollars on capital projects, making sure projects occur across the entire Town and not just in certain areas.
“If merger doesn’t pass, there should be community conversations about moving forward. I would support those continued explorations to reach more compromise in a way that gets us out of the status quo and into a more fair and equitable governance and taxation model.”
5. What measures do you think the selectboard could try to implement that could lessen the tax burden on residents, whether through cutting spending or increasing revenue?
ELAINE HANEY: “A local option tax is the surest way both to increase revenue and reduce property taxes significantly. Other efforts would have less impact on the Town budget. Adjusting development impact fees, license and permit fees, and other fees will improve revenue but not enough for taxpayers to benefit noticeably. Development increases the Town grand list 1.6% a year on average. The more the grand list grows, the lower the pressure on property taxes.
“We always look for ways to cut spending, including reducing costly insurance premiums when we can, and negotiating responsible, realistic wage increases with staff and police. We managed to save over $3.4 million over the last several years by consolidating services and departments with the Village. That savings accrues year to year. We must build on it by finding more ways to save money through eliminating duplication, managing staffing levels through attrition, and increasing efficiencies.”
DAWN HILL-FLEURY: “We should look at ways to cut costs as well as look for ways to increase revenue. I am open to suggestions for both of these issues as they will have a direct impact on our fellow residents.”
TRACEY DELPHIA: “The Selectboard should always be striving to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Cutting spending or increasing revenue are not the only two options – we must first question whether we are being as efficient as possible in order to leverage savings in overall staff time and resources.
"I would look to implement various process improvement initiatives to find efficiencies -- and therefore overall savings -- to make better use of the current funding and staffing levels. Having a unified work plan listing all parties involved to accurately capture status, roles, and responsibilities of those items would result in more savings and efficiencies.“