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.

By  George Tyler
Village vice president

Question: The Community voted against merger in 2007 and against recreation merger in 2014. Why do the Village and Town governments keep bringing it back?   

Answer: For most local government officials, merger makes too much sense to ignore.

Most people run for local office with good intentions. They want to support responsible government. They want to provide public oversight for how tax dollars are spent. They want to give back to their community and help solve problems.

What elected officials soon learn upon taking their seat on the Essex Town Selectboard or as an Essex Junction Trustee is that half the population of our community – those living in the Village – comes under the jurisdiction of the Essex Junction and Essex Town governments; the other half is governed only by Essex Town. Each government writes its own laws and does its own planning. Each has its own building codes. Each raises revenue from its own tax base – for the Trustees just the Village tax base, for the Selectboard the entire Town tax base, including the Village tax base – to pay for its own menu of municipal services. Each government holds its own budget vote to get approval for raising and spending those revenues. And each government owns and operates some municipal services on which the entire community depends – the Essex Town Police Department and the Essex Junction wastewater treatment plant, for example.

In other words, most elected board members learn upon taking local office that our governance and municipal service structure is a complex web of independence and interdependence, with two lines of authority and two interconnected tax bases. It’s a knot that begs to be untangled, which is probably why successive generations of Selectboards and Trustees keep putting merger on the front burner of local politics.

Today, the boards face the same challenges untangling the knots as with previous merger efforts. Chief among them is the redistribution of the municipal tax burden: how to shift the cost of Village services to the entire Town/Village tax base, so that the cost of Village and Town services together are borne more or less equally by all taxpayers. It’s a big problem, but it’s also important to keep it in perspective.

With the recent school district merger, the approximately $80 million dollar cost of operating Town and Village schools is now distributed more or less equally throughout the community. The $14 million dollar cost of Essex Town municipal services is also distributed throughout the community. That leaves the $3.5 million dollar cost of Village services as the only remaining significant cost that’s levied exclusively on one part of the community and not distributed community-wide. (The one exception is a Town highway tax amounting to about $165,000 per year levied just on Town-Outside-the-Village properties.) $3.5 million dollars is a lot of money, but it represents only 3.6 percent of our total local property-tax-generated revenues. It’s a hurdle but not an insurmountable obstacle, and the two boards are already looking at ways of surmounting it without big increases in anyone’s tax bill.

If the planned November 2020 vote for merger fails, it’s unlikely that the issue will go away for long. Elected board members seek to improve the financial health of their municipalities. Future board members will be no different. Our recent, successful consolidations are not what some have called “merger without a vote.” They reflect an ongoing strategy to seek savings and efficiencies wherever possible and to put greater Essex on a path towards a financially sustainable future.

Over the last six years our two governments have garnered significant savings by consolidating Town and Village administrative services. Our two governments now work closely on utilities and public works management and economic development strategy. The benefits of working together have become too obvious and tangible for most present or future elected officials to ignore. The urge to merge won’t go away.

The results of the first resident survey and the resident focus groups–and much more–are posted on www.GreaterEssex2020.org. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at ehaney@essex.org, abrown@essexjunction.org, and eteich@essex.org.