The governance subcommittee recommended last week that the selectboard and trustees pursue a unified charter model for the town and village while stressing two main obstacles that stand in the way: creating a new representation model and achieving tax equity.
Speaking on behalf of the subcommittee, village president George Tyler outlined the idea for the two governing boards. Under a unified charter model, the town and village could continue the council and manager form of government under the guidance of a unified board with a single budget, charter and tax rate.
“If we just imagine Essex Town if Essex Jct. didn’t exist,” Tyler said. “If Essex Town was like Colchester or Williston – that’s pretty much the concept.”
Getting from here to there has two major hurdles that the boards will need to tackle within the calendar year if they hope to meet their goal of a November 2020 vote.
For starters, they must figure out what a new governing board looks like – and where those new officials can reside. At their disposal are several options including a fully at-large membership, where representatives are elected across the merged municipality, or a two-ward system, where the village and town-outside-the-village could maintain representatives who live in their geographical area.
But the more pressing concern, according to Tyler, is how to address taxes, since the only way to achieve equity between village, who pay taxes into both general funds, and town-outside-the-village residents is to make the latter pay more.
If the town were to move the village’s entire general fund budget into its own, voters would be asked to approve about a 27 percent increase over the current fiscal year – roughly eight times greater than the increase approved on Town Meeting Day.
“I’ve gone to most of the annual meetings the last two decades. I’ve never seen it get to 10 percent,” Tyler sid of the increase. There’s a reason why governments don’t just bump up their general funds by 20 30 40 percent, and one of them is because voters don’t like that.” He continued that if the boards are serious about consolidation, they need to consider what happens when they try to unify the two budgets.
“We could take the attitude it doesn’t matter [and] our job is just to figure out what’s the ideal form of government – we put it out there on a ballot and let the chips fall where they may,” Tyler said. But that approach has historically only led to an increase in town-village antagonism and resulted in a defeated proposal, he said.
Tyler outlined several options to help ease the shock of the tax increase. The boards could include wording in the charter that details a timetable over which the tax increase would take place – say, five years.
Another possibility is to make the village a special taxing district that could still pay more taxes than its counterpart but slowly phase down the tax rate – though Tyler said that’s more of a “finance scheme” than a governance model.
Or the boards could create special districts in the town and the village that could maintain oversight of the community-specific services – namely recreation and libraries – while creating a unified tax rate for essential services. A separate board could then set those departments’ budgets for the unified board’s approval.
“That would ease some of the tax shock of equalizing taxes and also give voters … a little bit of a sense of control, maybe a little more sense of identity over their specific services,” he said.
Tyler said if the boards want to put something on the ballot for November 2020, considered the best chance of getting the most voters to the polls, then they should have a clear idea of “where we want to go” by the end of the calendar year, leaving eight months for a robust public outreach campaign.
“How do we decide whether the tax equity issue is going to be a dealbreaker for people outside the village? How do we decide whether maintaining village identify is a deal breaker for people in the village? How do we get some feedback on those kinds of questions?”
The subcommittee recommended the boards hire a consultant to coordinate the outreach campaign, which officials hope to start as soon as possible. Tyler noted the 2020 election will likely bring thousands of voters to the polls, meaning the boards need to reach thousands of people in town – a far greater task than any recent public outreach campaign.
Tyler also urged the boards to remain as objective as possible throughout the process, understanding that while officials are passionate about the subject of consolidation, their feelings “may very much be in the minority” when looking at the more than 16,000 registered voters in town.
“We don’t want to go sailing onto the rocks and say we’ve got this beautiful thing figured out here and yet the rest of the community isn’t with us because we’ve overlooked something,” Tyler said.
The boards approved $14,000 in funding for the consultant and authorized town staff to send out a request for proposal. The boards also blessed their subcommittee to continue its governance work for at least the next few months.
Resident Bridget Downey Meyer emphasized the large task ahead of the boards, especially given how the often intertwined nature of town-village relations leaves even some longtime residents confused.
“I’m not the professional you’re going to hire – I’d throw myself out in traffic if you did that – but I really think this has to be made clear,” she said. “If you don’t communicate it and you get to the 2020 vote, your chances are going to be pretty slim.”
Dan Richardson, the boards’ consulting merger attorney, followed Tyler’s summation by saying none of the challenges that lay ahead are insurmountable. “There’s a lot of different options,” he said. Richardson will remain on retainer as the boards work toward the 2020 deadline and help officials get the proposal through the legislature if it passes muster with voters.
Asked if he had any other recommendations at this time, Richardson kept it short and sweet. “Good luck,” he said, to laughter.