MergerTownVillage

[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.]

By George Tyler

Essex Jct. Trustees Vice President

Public officials need to know when to lead and when to follow. They also need to know when it’s time to use their best judgment to make tough decisions on behalf of the people they represent. They also need to know when it’s time to stop talking and ask the people they serve for guidance.

Over the past 12 months the public officials of the Essex community – the Essex Junction Trustees and the Essex Town Selectboard – together have been considering a plan for merging the two governments to be placed on the ballot in November 2020. Along the way we’ve done a lot of talking and made a lot of decisions about this plan based on financial and legal information, experience, history, and, we hope, common sense. We’ve listened to lawyers, Town and Village staff, and community members who’ve attended our meetings. We’ve looked at what other communities have done. We’ve spent a lot of time talking and listening to each other.

But now it’s time for us to zip it up and listen to you, the people we represent.

Development of an actual merger plan is yet to come. But we know what many of its components will be: voting, representation, and taxation, to name a few. We need to know what you think of those components and how you think they should happen. If the majority of residents support a unified government, what should it look like? Should we change the way we approve budgets? Should we change the way we elect local board members? How do you feel about the development that’s been going on? Are you happy with Town and Village municipal services? Should we keep some aspects of Town and Village identities? How should we handle any tax increases caused by merger? Even if you don’t support merger, we want to hear your opinions on these topics.

Most important, should we move ahead with our plan to hold a public vote about merger in the November 2020 elections?

We’ve bundled all these questions and more into a survey you can take online at https://www.research.net/r/Essex2020. You can link to it directly, or through the Essex Junction or Essex Town websites, at GreaterEssex2020, or through Front Porch Forum. You can also pick up and drop off paper copies of the survey at the Town or Village offices, the Brownell Library, the Essex Free Library, and the recreation offices at 75 Maple Street.

We don’t want to overstate our case, but most people never have an opportunity to help redesign their local government. This is your opportunity. The Selectboard and Trustees will be guided by the results of this survey (as well as the first survey and recent focus groups). We will look for consensus, concerns, and calls for caution, and will translate the results of this survey directly into the development of a new community charter that we anticipate will be voted on in November 2020. The results will also help us decide if we need to do more research on certain topics and if we need to provide our constituents with more information about the charter change proposal.

Our community has a long and fraught history over merger. We know there’s no merger proposal that’s going to make everyone happy. The underlying reasons that have compelled previous generations of Town and Village officials to explore merger won’t go away if voters in November 2020 reject a merger plan. That’s why we’d like to get it right this time. To that end, we’ve taken a very different course than previous merger efforts. We’ve moved slowly. We’ve established an atmosphere of trust between the two boards. We’ve aligned many Town and Village departmental policies, restructured budgets, and consolidated positions so that if merger happens we will do it with eyes wide open to the challenges and benefits and not take a leap into the dark.

But mostly, we’ve tried to listen to our constituents. The survey we hope you’ll take is a decisive moment in our entire public outreach process. It will help us build the draft merger plan we’ll be bringing to the Town and Village annual meetings next spring for further public engagement and review. If you’ve ever felt like giving back to your community or having a say in how things are run, here’s your chance. Please take a moment, take the survey, and let us know what you think.

You’ll find a link to the new survey on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. Please take some time to participate. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at ehaney@essex.org, abrown@essexjunction.org, and eteich@essex.org.