ESSEX JUNCTION — On Nov. 2, Village of Essex Junction voters will take to the polls to decide whether to adopt a new municipal charter that would transform the village into an independent city.
Adopting the new charter would separate the village from the Town of Essex. That means taxpayers’ dollars would stay invested within the city; now, Essex Junction property owners are financially supporting both local governments, Village President Andrew Brown explained.
“We will continue to be the same community we have been,” Brown said during a public hearing on the charter Oct. 12. “But we will have full control over our future. Our tax dollars are going to stay within Essex Junction, and we will also be an equal municipality to other Chittenden County towns.”
Since 1958, there have been many votes about merging with or separating from the Town of Essex. The most recent vote, on a plan to merge the two communities, was in April 2021. It failed by 27 votes.
At the time of that vote’s failure, the village board of trustees asked residents a nonbinding, advisory question on whether to look into separating from the town. That question passed by a count of 2,690-709.
As a result, the trustees created a city charter that eventually would result in separating the entities’ administration, clerk/treasurer, finance, information technology and public works operations.
Trustees say village property owners can expect a 7.25% decrease in municipal taxes under separation because they would no longer be paying for duplicate services from the Town of Essex like parks and recreation and public works.
For the owner of a $300,000 home, that savings equates to $195 annually.
Should village voters approve, the charter would then be sent to the Vermont Legislature and eventually the governor, and Essex Junction would become a city July 1 and establish its own services separate from the town a year later.
Should voters reject the charter, the village and town would remain status quo, continuing to function as they currently do.
Growing financial strain
Essex Junction was created by the Vermont Legislature in 1893 to meet the needs of the growing population settling around the crossroads now known as Five Corners.
When the village was incorporated, the community created a second municipal government within Essex and taxed its residents separately for the additional services it required.
Though Essex Junction’s charter gave it the same general legal powers as any city or town, under Vermont law, the people and businesses in the Village were, and still are, considered part of the town and required to also pay town taxes.
When the town outside the village was mostly rural and undeveloped, this double tax wasn’t much of a burden, but as the town grew and more services were required, the financial strain became challenging for villagers.
By the mid-20th century, village residents began seeking tax relief by either separating from Essex Town — as St. Albans City did from St. Albans Town in the late 19th century — or by merging, so that all costs were equally shared.
“The status quo is intolerable,” Brown told the Reporter last year. “We’re not going to keep that up.”
The first vote for separation occurred in 1958, and the first vote to merge was in 1974. The two municipalities last attempted to separate in 2000 and to merge in March/April 2021.
The merger plan the trustees and selectboard put before voters earlier this year called for a gradual equalization of tax rates between villagers and residents of the town outside the Village (TOV).
While nearly 80% of village voters said “yes” to merging, nearly 70% of TOV voters said “no.”
Had merger passed, the municipal taxes of TOV property owners would have seen an increase each year for 12 years, barring any large changes to the grand list, such as a substantial new development.
A long, contentious process
On April 27, the trustees decided to dedicate approximately the first hour of each of their regularly scheduled meetings to a work session on village independence.
Since then, they’ve drafted a new municipal charter for a proposed City of Essex Junction. The charter defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the new city, as well as lays out plans for a transitional period.
During this period — from July 1, 2022, to June 20, 2023 — the city would continue to receive and pay for consolidated services with the Town of Essex for administration, assessing, clerk/treasurer, finance and information technology.
After many joint meetings, the village trustees and town selectboard tentatively agreed to continue sharing the Essex police department between the two municipalities for at least the next 10 years regardless of the outcome of the vote.
This agreement may continue to renew for an unlimited number of extended terms, according to a proposed memorandum of understanding between the town and the village.
A vote in favor of the city charter would result in state reps. Lori Houghton and Karen Dolan writing a bill for the House Government Operations Committee to take up.
“The committee could pass [our charter] out as it is, come back to us and say it needs work or they could pass it out with their own changes to it,” Houghton said during a May 11 trustees meeting.
If passed by the Vermont House of Representatives, the charter will then move through various committees in the state senate. Once out of the legislature, it would go to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk for his signature.
“The process sounds very easy, but getting it passed is not necessarily very easy,” Houghton said. “We’ve alluded to the fact it’s going to be contentious … but I think the Village has a strong case.”