Last week the Governance Subcommittee of the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees presented more details about the draft merger plan. We’ll summarize them in this column. On Saturday, Feb. 15 from 1-3 p.m. there will be an outreach event at Essex Middle School. Members of the Selectboard and Trustees will present the draft merger plan and answer questions. We hope you’ll attend.
Two transitional periods. For governance purposes, for the first five years of merger there would be a seven-member board with two seats from the Village, two seats from the Town outside the Village (TOV), and three seats at-large. This transitional board would develop the future, permanent board. During this five-year period the board would also oversee the integration of all municipal departments, receive and consider the Planning Commission’s update of the comprehensive plan and any suggestions for adjustments to development codes, and the merging of ordinances and budgets.
For taxation purposes, for the first 12 years there would be a gradual incorporation of the Village general fund into the Town’s. If that happened all at once, TOV homeowners would see a tax increase of around 23%. To minimize that increase as much as possible, the change would happen over 12 years, at a rate of about $26 per year over that time period for the average TOV home (valued at $280,000). In addition, gradual growth in the grand list over those 12 years would reduce the impact further.
Why a seven-member board? It’s an odd number that avoids deadlock. It balances the wishes of those wanting district representation with those wanting at-large representation. It’s a compromise. It builds in diversity: having two fixed seats for each region ensures the rural area of Essex always has representation, and the more suburban areas of Essex and the Village always have representation. But the regional seats would be voted on by only half the community. The at-large seats would be voted on by everyone and those elected to those seats would represent the entire community. It’s a balance.
Why not a 3-3 or 3-3-1 board? The Subcommittee explored the concept of an even-numbered board early on as part of its research. Legal counsel advised that while there is no law against an even-numbered board, an odd number is a practical requirement. There is also mandated timing for budget approvals--if a tie occurs and is not quickly resolved, statutes regarding the timing of annual meeting warnings and ballots would be violated.
Having a 3-3-1 board with one member elected at-large would look and act very much like a mayoral system. It would alleviate the even-numbered problem, but we learned from survey results over the summer that residents strongly oppose having a mayoral form of government.
Creating permanent districts requires close proportionality of the populations of those districts (not just registered voters)--this is based on US Supreme Court case law. It requires accurate and current Census data. By the time we vote in November, the 2020 Census will have occurred but the data for reapportionment will not be released until April 1, 2021. Looking at the 2010 Census numbers and 2020 Census estimates as well as ten-year growth trends in both areas of Essex, we feel confident that utilizing the current Village boundary to create two districts will provide the requisite proportionality during that transitional period. It would be best to wait until after the 2020 Census numbers are released to work on any other district model for a merged community.
Gradual budget integration. For the first 12 years as a unified community the Village would become a “debt assessment district” to pay off the remaining balance of its debt, all of which is tied to infrastructure. The Village would also become a “tax reconciliation district” to allow for the gradual integration of the Village and Town general funds.
We are also exploring if, during the first 12 years as a unified community, the Village could also become a “sidewalk district,” with the costs of maintaining Village sidewalks paid only by Village residents. A Village “capital improvement district” is also being considered to keep the cost of current capital projects off the bill of TOV taxpayers. Finally, a “downtown improvement district” is being considered to contain the costs of improvements to the Five Corners area within that district.
Budget to ballot and one-day voting. The Subcommittee recommends moving approval of the Town budget from a floor vote at Town Meeting to Australian ballot vote. This was overwhelmingly supported by residents who took the survey over the summer. With the consolidation of Village and Town budgets into a single budget, this would eliminate three voting days for Village residents and two voting days for Town residents, something recommended years ago by the Essex Governance Group. The vote on the unified Town budget would be on the same day as the school budget vote. Australian ballot allows for more people to vote because the polls are open all day, and because absentee ballots would be available for those who couldn’t be there. Annual meeting would become a budget informational meeting with no budget voting taking place from the floor.
The names remain the same. We would still be called the Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction. The only difference is the Village would go from being incorporated to unincorporated.
Water and sewer bills are paid only by users. A lot of people have asked about what happens to the cost of water and sewer under merger. These bills are actually paid for only by those who use these municipal services. This cost is not part of the taxes that are collected from residents--we all get separate water and sewer bills. If you have a septic system, you are not paying for municipal sewer, and that would continue.
Stay in touch. The Selectboard and Trustees will continue refining the draft merger plan over the next few months. We will hold multiple outreach events to inform residents and hear your input. As always, we welcome your emails and conversation. Also visit www.GreaterEssex2020.org for more information.