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

Question: Why don’t the Town and Village just merge and get it over with?

Answer: It’s a complicated process and requires voter approval

Imagine two incorporated businesses. They’ve been working closely together for the last ten or so years because they’ve discovered that collaborating instead of competing saves both of them money and helps them better serve their customers. Each business owns millions of dollars’ worth of buildings and equipment. Each owns huge tracts of real estate. Each employs dozens of unionized and non-unionized staff. Each has debts and financial and legal obligations with other corporations. Each has stockholders who annually vote their approval of how each business is being run.

Imagine the two businesses want to explore taking their collaboration to the next level by merging into a new corporation. To do so they must present their stockholders with a plan of merger explaining how all their assets, debts, contracts, and obligations will be consolidated. They must show why they think merger is the right way to go – why it will lower operating costs, expand and diversify the employee pool, increase opportunities for improvement, and solve problems more nimbly.

This imagined scenario describes the real situation facing the elected boards of Essex Junction and Essex Town as they contemplate the idea of merger.

The two governments are already deeply interconnected. Among many other things, they share the same administration and manager, jointly work on stormwater management, and jointly operate a senior center. The Essex Town Police Department, the most expensive municipal cost, serves the entire community. The Essex Junction wastewater treatment plant serves the Town as well as the Village. Two of the Town’s most important facilities, its new police station and its newly renovated administrative offices, are within the Village’s boundaries. The list goes on and on.

The two boards have also demonstrated that collaborating saves money. For example, one tax bill sent from one office can just as easily collect taxes for two municipal governments as two tax bills from two offices. A Town engineer pitching in his services can reduce the cost of repairing a bridge in the Village. A Village maintenance truck loaned to the Town can save the Town the cost of buying its own truck. One administration serving two elected boards can not only save money but improve intergovernmental communications and help avoid misunderstandings.

But Essex Junction and Essex Town are still separate municipal corporations. Each owns millions of dollars of assets and huge tracts of municipal property. The Village has a binding contract with an employee association; the Town has  contracts with an employee union and a police union. Both governments have debts, financial commitments, and legal obligations. A plan of merger must explain to voters and to the Vermont Legislature how assets will be consolidated, debts and obligations resolved, and commitments honored.  The merger plan must clear two hurdles because things voters care about – representation, services, taxes – aren’t the same things that the Legislature cares about – conformity to statutes and legal precedents.

There’s no cut-and-paste way of preparing a merger plan. In past efforts the two governments created citizen committees. They believed this would provide valuable public input to the process. The problem was that it tended to diminish the technical, legal, and political insights that elected officials and staff brought to the process. More important, appointed private citizens aren’t accountable to voters, aren’t elected by anyone, and can’t truthfully claim to represent anyone other than themselves, no matter how well-intended they are.

For the current process of developing a merger plan the two boards took a different tack. They’re working closely with administrative staff and a legal specialist to obtain highly accurate information about financial impacts and legal requirements. Rather than appoint a few private citizens as representatives of the Village or Town, the boards have retained a private consulting firm to engage the entire community through a series of surveys and focus groups. They’ve so far reached nearly 800 Town and Village residents and there’s a lot more public outreach to come. Anyone claiming that one or another part of the community isn’t being heard hasn’t been paying attention.

Over the next ten months the two boards will synthesize all this financial and legal advice into a plan of merger that explains how all Town and Village assets, debts, obligations, and services can be legally consolidated under one government. They’ll rely heavily on all the public input they’ve gathered to develop a governance and representation plan that’s balanced, fair, and straightforward. They’ll explain why they think all this is the right way to go.

In the meantime, the boards also have two governments to run. It might be tempting to rush things and ‘get it over with.’ But the boards know that the plan of merger they put in front of voters next summer must pass intense political and legal scrutiny. They want to ensure that it’s grounded in accurate research, will maintain our quality of civic life, and will provide a solid foundation for governance and municipal service delivery for decades to come.

The results of the first resident survey and the resident focus groups–and much more–are posted on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. 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.