MergerTownVillage

Written by Elaine Haney

Chair of the Essex Selectboard

[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.]

Answer: Yes, but not much, and it will vary by department.

One of the principles guiding merger discussion is that our municipal services will continue at the same high quality we currently experience. Discussions have not included eliminating or reducing any services, and we are not planning to lay off employees if we merge. Nor are we planning to hire new employees as a part of merger. The goal is to keep the quality of services high, while keeping costs level or reducing them through efficiencies and economies of scale. Over the last several years through consolidation we have achieved over $2M in savings; the goal is to continue that trend with the end result of having a financially sustainable and fiscally responsible community prepared to meet the challenges of the next several decades.

Fire, Libraries & Police

These three departments would see very little change.

There is a mutual aid agreement currently in place between Essex Fire Department and Essex Junction Fire Department, and there are no plans to change it. Each fire department would continue to support the other and work together on calls. In the last few years both have worked together to implement the same trainings. Their pay scales are now aligned, as are their policies. There are no plans to eliminate any positions, although the possibility of having a single fire chief will be examined. Their budgets are still separate; under a merged community their budgets would unify. Their equipment and other assets would be owned by the unified municipality.

There are no plans to change the way either library operates and neither library will be closed. The library directors currently work together frequently on a variety of concerns including IT and shared staffing. The Essex Free and the Brownell libraries would continue to offer the same high quality programming they always have. We are currently exploring a unified funding model for both libraries.

The Essex Police Department has been shared by the Town and the Village since the 1980s. It has been a very successful consolidated service that would see no changes under merger.

Planning

The community-based Thoughtful Growth in Action process a few years ago would inform how we unify the two planning departments. TGIA recommended creating a single planning commission for all of Essex, as well as two development review boards; we will consider whether two DRBs would be necessary in a unified community. Like other departments, the unified planning department would have a single budget. Town and Village land development codes would, over time, be merged, with an eye towards consistency and thoughtful growth. The Village and Town comprehensive plans would also be merged. All residents, no matter where they live in the community, would have input into the future development of all areas of greater Essex.

Public works

In 2015 voters approved moving the Village public works budget into the Town budget as a separate line item. So the cost of these departments is already spread evenly across all taxpayers. Under merger they would share a unified budget. Town and Village public works employees already work together often and money is saved by sharing large equipment.

We do not anticipate any major changes in how our roads and sidewalks are plowed. The Town and Village already share an annual winter operations plan that details how each neighborhood is plowed. If we have a long winter that requires a lot of road salt, the cost of that salt would be borne by the entire community and therefore some savings could be seen there.

In a unified community, all the projects would have to come together. The Town and Village already save a lot of money by buying asphalt together, but they still each pave their own roads. If merged, all paving projects would be grouped and prioritized together, whether in the Village or the Town. Decisions on which roads to pave would be based on an annual conditions assessment of all roads in the merged municipality and and how they fit in the overall picture of need.

Efficiencies and savings would be realized by using staff engineering services for projects that currently rely on outside firms. Funding for capital projects would be consistent and all the projects would be prioritized together. Decisions on capital projects would balance the needs and available funding with other annual budget priorities. However, the ability to bond as a single community would make the cost to repay the debt less expensive per household.

Clerk & Assessor

The Town assessor’s area of responsibility has always included the Village. This would not change under merger. Several years ago the Village Clerk also became the consolidated Town Clerk, replacing the former Town clerk, who had retired. Currently the Village pays approximately two-thirds of the Clerk’s salary and benefits, while the Town pays the salaries and benefits of two assistant clerks. In a unified community the cost of these positions would be spread evenly across all taxpayers.

Water & Wastewater

Currently Village and Town outside the Village residents pay different water rates, with the Village rates being lower. Town policy requires any home outside of the Town sewer core to be on septic. Only households connected to Town water and sewer pay those utility rates. Almost all Village homes have municipal water and pay the lower Village rate. We are still investigating what the impact of merger would have on water rates community-wide. The Village and Town are both members of the tri-town wastewater agreement (the third member is Williston), which covers the wastewater treatment plant located in the Village but used by the entire community. Under merger, this agreement would be between two municipalities, but the costs would not change.

Recreation

The recently completed co-location of Essex Parks & Recreation at Maple Street Park with Essex Junction Recreation & Parks is already paying off with the creation of a single catalog and registration system, allowing for better customer service for the whole community. Under merger the two departments would continue streamlining their operations. A goal as a unified community would be to offer five-star childcare and summer camps to all Essex families in more locations, expanding out into the Town, at the same cost for everyone, and without staggered registrations. We anticipate that all greater Essex families would be able to access high quality, affordable childcare near their homes, as well as enjoy dozens of sports and arts programs for all ages.

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A new, second resident survey is under way–you’ll find a link to it 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.