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.]
The recent resident survey results are in and it’s extremely clear that people are looking for more information. The next few columns will review the survey results. To start, let’s discuss existing issues a merger could potentially address.
Service efficiencyWe have already improved service efficiency in some areas like the manager’s office, public works, the clerk’s office, and the municipal finance office. Under merger we would combine our planning departments, enabling staff to work together on projects rather than contract out for services. It would create a single land development code that would provide consistency and predictability for businesses, builders, and residents. It would create one set of ordinances for the police department to follow. It would allow us to create one set of policies and procedures for staff to follow. And it would create one governing body of one set of elected officials and less confusion for residents.
Community-wide planningCurrently only Village residents can approve the Village comprehensive plan--the document that, when coupled with the land development code, is the basis for development. Town residents not living in the Village do not currently have a say in this plan. If the Village and Town merged, there would be a single comprehensive plan and one land development code. This does not mean development in the Village would be duplicated in the Town. It means that residents from anywhere in the Town would have equal say about development anywhere in the Town. Residents in the Village would continue to have a say about development in the Town outside the Village, but under merger Town outside the Village residents would also have a say about development in the Village.
Running two organizations separately and constantly going back and forth about potential direction (merge, status quo, separate) often keep municipal officials and staff from focusing on initiatives that could improve the lives of all residents. Working for two organizations with multiple directions and little predictability may over time cause low morale and burnout, and keep well-qualified staff from joining or staying with the organization. It may also keep people from running for the boards.
Ease of votingCurrently, Village residents vote 5 times a year:
- Town Annual Meeting
- Town elections
- Village Annual Meeting
- Village elections / school board budget, elections
- November national/state elections
Town residents vote 4 times a year:
- Town Annual Meeting
- Town elections
- School board budget, elections
- November national/state elections
Merger could eliminate two votes for Village residents (Village Annual Meeting and Village elections). The resident survey indicated a strong preference for budget voting by Australian ballot. If a merger plan included eliminating Town Annual Meeting and using Australian ballot to approve the budget, that would eliminate one voting day for the Town and an additional voting day for the Village (though there would still be a public hearing on the budget prior to voting). These changes would result in three voting days for everyone: Town Australian ballot budget vote, school district budget/elections, and national/state elections.
There is potential to reduce the number further: it is possible that school district leadership could align their voting with whatever the Town and Village decide so that all our municipal and school district voting is done on one day. If that were also to happen, after merger Village residents could go from 5 votes annually to 2, and Town residents could go from 4 to 2: 1 day for all local voting and 1 day for state/national elections.
Changing to Australian ballot voting would end voice voting on the budget at Town Annual Meeting, a New England tradition hundreds of years old. However, many residents feel that approving the budget at Town Meeting has become unfair because so few people attend. Having an Australian ballot budget vote also includes absentee balloting, which allows residents who can’t come to Town Meeting to vote on the budget. Town Meeting could then become a public hearing to present the budget and answer citizen questions.
Accessibility to servicesCurrently non-Village residents (Town outside the Village residents as well as Colchester or Williston residents) pay extra to use Village recreation (EJRP) services like camps and daycare. Village residents also get to sign up earlier than everyone else for some programs. This is because Village residents pay property taxes for EJRP services, but the others do not. Under a merged community, there could be one recreation department that everyone in the Town pays the same amount of taxes for. Therefore, everyone could be able to sign up for rec programs at the same time, and no Town residents would have to pay extra.
Another example of accessibility is capital projects. Currently the Village pays for its own capital projects (road repair, sidewalks, etc). Village residents also pay for Town capital projects. But all of the projects the Town does are in the Town outside the Village--none of them are in the Village. Under a merger, everyone in the entire Town would pay the same amount of taxes for capital projects, and those funds would pay for projects throughout the entire Town.
RepresentationCurrently all Selectboard seats are elected at-large. This means that at any given time, there could be more elected officials from one geographic area of the Town than another. Some residents have expressed concern that currently there are 3 Village residents on the Selectboard right now, even though they are also Town residents and have the right to sit on the Selectboard. Only Village residents can be Village Trustees. While all elected officials are required by law to represent their entire constituencies, there is the perception that so many Village residents in local government is unfair. The resident survey results indicate a preference for some kind of district-based voting system that would ensure that each geographic area of the Town is represented on the governing board. A merger plan that includes such districts could address concerns about representation.
Equitable taxationVillage residents pay taxes for Village services that the Town either does not provide or provides at different service levels. Village residents also pay taxes for Town services, some of which are not provided to Village residents (planning, capital projects, public works). Another way to say this is that if the Village government never existed, all Town residents would be paying for all services, including those in the Village.
Under merger, taxation would be adjusted over a set period of time so that everyone is paying for all the services and everyone would have access to all the services. Because Village residents currently pay more taxes, under merger their taxes would likely go down. Under merger, the Town budget would no longer receive extra funds from the Village, so taxes for Town outside the Village residents would most likely go up. Currently, the boards are working with municipal staff to accurately identify the actual dollar amounts of the tax increase and decrease. A merger plan could specify the length of time it would take to make the adjustment. The survey results indicate that a 5-7 year transition is preferred.
You’ll find a link to the results of the first and second surveys--and much more--on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.