Challengers Patrick Murray and Annie Cooper were elected to the Essex Selectboard on Tuesday, knocking off longtime incumbent Irene Wrenner, preliminary Town Meeting Day results show.
Murray led all vote-getters with 1178 followed by Cooper’s 1,065. Wrenner, who was seeking her fifth term on the board, finished third with 898.
“I’m ecstatic. I’m thrilled,” Murray said Tuesday night after learning the results. “I really appreciate everyone voting for me. I’m really impressed with the campaign that everyone ran. There was no negativity, it was all positive.”
Cooper’s win follows a last-minute decision to file a petition and a campaign in which she did very little traditional outreach, distributing zero lawn signs any making no door-to-door stops. Instead, she said, she focused on the relationships she’s built over the last 20 years. It proved to be enough.
Cooper added that she’s grateful to Wrenner for her years of service on the selectboard.
“It’s so beautiful that there are there people as passionate as Irene and Patrick and myself who wish to serve our community,” Cooper said. “I think that’s the greatest part of this story: That all three of us are equally passionate to serve Essex.”
For Wrenner, the result ends a 12-year run on the governing board that saw her miss no meetings.
“It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve my town as a volunteer for nearly 14 years,” she said in a statement emailed to The Reporter on Tuesday. “I learned a great deal, met some amazing people, and believe I made a difference. On to new adventures.”
The 1,745 votes cast Tuesday represent about an 11 percent turnout, while the 268 residents at the annual meeting the night prior represented a turnout of 1.6 percent.
There, for the second year in a row, voters passed a general fund budget higher than the one they were asked to approve, choosing to throw an extra $100,000 with a request that it be used to bolster repaving efforts amid what town officials have called a particularly difficult winter for roads.
The request came from resident Henry Gabert, who hoped the vote would “send a clear message that our infrastructure … the roads that we all drive on every day are more important and we need to start fixing them up.”
To back up his request, Gabert listed data he received from the public works department showing that out of 230 sections within the town’s 50 miles of road, 66 sections are considered either failing, serious or very poor based on the pavement condition index, a numerical rating system used by civil engineers to monitor the health of roadways.
Resident Keeley Schell pushed back against Gabert’s request, saying she understands the concern about roads but feels the selectboard and town staff worked hard to prioritize their budget proposal.
“There’s a lot of things we can throw money at if we just think of it tonight,” Schell said. “My inclination would be to go with the budget that was presented to us.”
But the majority of voters agreed with Gabert, passing his motion by a standing vote of 138 to 96.
Town officials have previously said voters can’t legally dictate how the money is used, though Gabert said he believes the selectboard has made good on other requests in the past. On Tuesday, public works director Dennis Lutz said he was preparing a request to the board for the additional funds.
The increase from the floor bumped the overall general fund budget to $14.83 million, which represents a a $470,000, or 3.28 percent, increase over the current fiscal year. The budget assumes a 1 percent grand list growth and uses $100,000 of fund balance to tamp down the tax rate increase.
As approved, the budget raises the town’s tax rate by 2.78 percent resulting in an estimated increase of $38 over the current fiscal year for the owner of a $280,000 home, according to chairman Max Levy.
According to town data, the average Essex home will pay $1,475 in town municipal taxes.
Budget increases included salary increases, expenses related to aligning the fire departments’ pay and training policies and three new positions, including two police officers, one which will start halfway through the fiscal year.
The Essex Police Department’s budget was up only $31,000, however, or less than 1 percent, thanks to funds previously budgeted for a now-vacant lieutenant position and recent buyouts of two longtime officers.
The third new position is a part-time buildings manager gig. Staff originally proposed the position be full-time, noting the person would be in charge of nearly 30 municipal buildings, but a majority of selectboard members felt the town should wait and see if it actually warranted the investment.
The town also realized savings through the removal of an unfilled information technology position after staff said they could make due without it, chairman Max Levy said.
The budget also includes $50,000 contribution to the village, representing about half the town and village clerk’s salary and benefits. The transfer created a 70-30 split of clerk employee-related costs with the village, helped the trustees reduce their budget increase to sub-4 percent and continued the two boards’ push to achieve tax equity between the communities.
As has become customary at the annual Town Meeting Day budget vote, the selectboard also shared a brief summary of the shared services initiative to date. Highlights for FY19 included the hiring of municipal manager Evan Teich, the creation of a shared human resources director and the alignment of fire department pay structures, among others changes.
That work will continue in FY20, with major projects including work toward a shared website for the town and village and the co-location of recreation departments, a move that voters authorized by approving the budget.
The evening ended on a bright note as selectman Michael Plageman bid farewell after six years on the selectboard. Plageman decided to not seek re-election this Town Meeting Day, ending more than 17 years of involvement on various town boards and committees. “It has been my honor to serve Essex,” Plageman said. He left the podium to a standing ovation.