Essex Junction was created by the Vermont Legislature in 1893 as a second municipal government in Essex, along with the Essex Town municipal government. By incorporating as a village, people in the most rapidly growing part of Essex, around the crossroads we know as 5 corners, were able to tax themselves for municipal services that the rest of the town didn’t want or wasn’t able to provide, such as schools, fire, and police.
Under Vermont law, the people and businesses in the village were still considered part of the town and had to pay taxes to the town.
This probably wasn’t too much of a burden for Essex Junction residents when the Essex Town government outside the village was small and the town was mostly undeveloped and rural. But as the town developed it created duplicate municipal services for town residents outside the village that village residents were required to support. Throughout the twentieth century the financial strain on village residents caused them to seek tax relief either by separating from Essex Town and becoming a city, as Winooski had done with Colchester and St. Albans city had done with St. Albans town, or by merging the Village and Town governments, so that all costs would be equally shared. Local records suggest there have been over 20 failed attempts to merge or separate. The last merger attempt was in 2006 when it was approved by both sides but overturned on a revote in 2007. The village last attempted to separate in 2000 but the town disagreed with the separation and the Vermont legislature refused to take sides.
Getting Village residents and Essex Town residents outside the village to agree has always been the challenge. Most of the time they disagreed over how the costs of operating municipal services would be redistributed throughout the community. But there have also been concerns about identity, with the Village wanting to retain its “village-like” identity as a close knit community interconnected with sidewalks and a downtown, and the town wanting to preserve its character as a more rural and suburban community.
In 2018 the Essex Junction Trustees and Essex Town selectboard began working on a new plan for merging the Village and Town. One of the ideas they came up with was to shift the costs of operating village services into the town budget gradually over 12 years instead of all at once to avoid a sudden, unacceptable tax increase for town residents.
Essex Junction and Essex Town are two of the state’s fastest growing communities. Reconciling the village-town tax rate gradually over 12 years will allow some of that economic growth to offset the financial impact of merger on town taxpayers.
The 2020 merger plan will add about $25 per year over 12 years to the average town homeowner’s tax bill and reduce the average village homeowner’s bill by about $35 per year.
The merger plan also calls for all village and town services – police, fire departments, libraries, parks, and public works departments – to continue providing the same level of services as they are.
For governing purposes the merger divides the Village and Town into two separate voting wards. Each ward will elect three representatives to sit on the new town selectboard. A seventh representative, who can be from either ward, will be elected by voters in both wards. This “3-3-1” elected board structure conforms to the guidance of the Vermont Legislature, which must approve all merger plans.
The merger plan also helps both parts of the community retain their identities. Building and zoning regulations will remain as they are but can be adapted gradually as the community grows together.
The names we’re all familiar with – Essex Town, Essex Junction, the village, the town, the junction – will remain the same.
Finally, it’s important for all Village voters to keep in mind that they are citizens of both governments, Essex Junction and Essex Town. Each government must get its voters’ approval to merge. The plan being voted on this November is just from the Village government. If the plan is approved, the Essex Town government will ask village voters to approve its version of the merger plan on town meeting day next spring. In this vote they will be joined by voters in the town outside the village. It’s anticipated that the town’s plan will be nearly identical to the village’s plan.
If both votes are positive, the two plans will be sent to the Vermont Legislature for approval. Any minor differences between the two plans will be reconciled and the merger will take affect later that year.
The Village Trustees urge all Village voters to visit the Essex Junction website to learn more about the village-town merger. What are the pros and cons? What else do you need to know before casting your vote?