Village trustees approved a $5.1 million fiscal year 2020 budget last week that represents a 4.24 percent increase over the current year.
The final proposal shows an estimated tax rate increase of an even 3 percent, raising village taxes on a $280,000 property by $26, according to finance director Sarah Macy.
Trustees found themselves facing a notably higher potential tax hike last month after a proposal to move their rolling stock fund into the town flopped. But the selectboard agreed to transfer $50,000 to the village – representing about half the unified clerk’s salary and benefits – which dropped the village’s tax rate increase to the easier-to-stomach percentage.
Still, the proposal failed to earn unanimous support from the board due to hang-ups over Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks’ decision to change its resident fee structure.
Trustees could have trimmed their proposal a final time last week prior to voting on the proposal, with discussion largely centered on a proposed part-time, 20-hour position for EJRP to be paid jointly with the town to centralize the departments’ public outreach.
Trustee Andrew Brown wondered whether it’s the right time for such a move given how the departments plan to soon undergo a significant change in co-locating their offices.
“Is now the time to do it instead of waiting until we have a year under our belts?” Brown asked. “Is there somebody that’s going to have additional time based on having additional people in the building?”
EJRP director Brad Luck defended the request, saying the position is vital to co-location because it will give the two departments “one consistent voice of recreation.”
The majority of trustees supported the position. “Considering the large amount of people ERP and EJRP touch, I think this is a small investment to accomplish that in a more efficient way,” trustee Elaine Haney (formerly Sopchak) said.
But members were less enthusiastic about another aspect of the co-location move: the change to resident fees. Luck informed the trustees late last year that EJRP hoped to charge all Essex residents the same fee, changing a system that now requires town-outside-the-village residents to pay extra and sometimes register later than village residents.
Under the new structure, all who live in Essex will pay the same price and be afforded the same priority; Luck budgeted about $7,000 less revenue to make up for the change.
Trustees voiced no concerns when Luck presented the idea at a joint meeting in December but expressed unease with the plan last week, suggesting it’s unfair to village residents.
“It’s not the money, it’s philosophically,” Brown said. “The $657,000 [in taxes] we’re going to ask village residents to pay in administration but then give a discount for people not paying it … I’m personally just not OK with that.”
Luck explained he and EPR director Ally Vile think the new fee structure represents the best way to move forward under one roof. He noted the logistical challenge in differentiating between the two groups of residents during program sign-ups, one that will only increase once the departments have a single brochure and registration system.
He didn’t expect the change to impact the “vast majority” of EJRP programs because most don’t reach capacity that quickly and pointed out that for EJRP’s two summer day camps, which each serve 180 kids, the department uses a credit score system for students who attend one of three village elementary schools, so he didn’t expect the new fee structure would greatly impact village residents’ ability to get their kids into these popular programs.
“People won’t know if they’re signing up for a village or town program unless it’s a historical one that they know,” he said.
Village president George Tyler shared Brown’s apprehension but preferred to see how the changes roll out in the first year. He added the selectboard’s $50,000 transfer “more than compensates” for the loss in revenue.
Brown responded by pointing out the village will need to make up for the lost revenue, so the budget sends the message that residents are OK with paying for non-resident fees.
“That’s one way of framing it,” Tyler responded. “There might be other ways of framing it that are more kind of conciliatory. But I get it. I don’t know what to say.”
Haney understands why officials struggled with the change, but a single rate is a step toward the shared goal of a single community between the town and village.
“This is a leap the trustees need to take,” Haney said.
Unpersuaded, Brown voted against the proposal. It passed 4-1.
The village board hosted a public hearing Tuesday after The Reporter’s deadline, at which trustees planned to warn the measure for an April vote.