I received a ballot in the mail asking if I approve the Plan of Merger with Essex Town. What is it for and what does it mean?
The Essex Junction Trustees, the governing body for the Village of Essex Junction, are asking Village voters if they want to merge the Essex Junction Village government and form a new government with the Town of Essex.
All Village residents are citizens of two governments, the Essex Junction government and the Essex Town government. As such, Village residents are represented by the Village Trustees and Town Selectboard and are taxed by both municipalities. Town residents who do not live within the Village of Essex Junction are represented solely by the Town Selectboard, and pay taxes only to the Town of Essex.
The “Plan of Merger” refers to a Municipal Charter, a legally binding, founding document. The Charter describes how the community will be governed and how elections will be held, among other things. If voters approve the Plan of Merger, the Vermont Legislature must then approve all new Charters before they become legally binding.
You mean there will be a new Charter for Essex and a new government?
Yes. If approved, the current Village Charter and Town Charter would be merged, along with all their assets and operations, and consolidated under one Charter.
Why should the Village merge with the Town?
The Village Trustees and Essex Selectboard support merger and believe it to be the best path forward for our community.
Both boards also believe that Village citizens must make this decision without undue influence from the boards or any other group. We strongly encourage our citizens to discuss this among themselves, ask questions of their elected officials, and find out as much as they can from trusted informational materials offered by the Essex Junction government and Essex Town government.
Some of the benefits of merger we see include:
- The cost of operating all Town and Village services will be equitably distributed among all residents and businesses. Right now, Village residents and businesses are taxed as Town residents by the Town government to share the cost of Town services, such as the Essex Police, the Essex Town Fire Department, The Essex Free Library, and the Essex Recreation and Parks department. Although the Town contributes some support for Village services, the Village government can’t tax Town residents and businesses outside the Village. The Village government relies almost entirely on Village residents to pay for the Essex Junction Fire Department, The Essex Junction Recreation and Parks Department, The Brownell Library, the Essex Junction Community Development and Planning Department, and the Village’s portion of the consolidated Village-Town administration.
Town residents currently enjoy the use of most Village services without paying into their operating budgets. Town residents also receive Village resident rates on services with Essex Junction Recreation and Parks. Work done to develop and maintain the village downtown (Community Development and Planning), which is entirely funded by Village taxpayers, directly benefits the tax base and financial health of the town as a whole.
- The Village and Town will more closely plan and grow together. Right now the Village and Town have separate planning commissions, zoning boards, and community development operations. The Essex Junction Trustees concern themselves only with the development of the Village while the Essex Selectboard focuses mainly on the suburban and rural town outside the Village. With merger, all of these planning, zoning, and long-term visioning processes would be unified under one government.
- Consolidating Village and Town departments can reduce costs by reducing duplication. To date, consolidation of various departments has saved Town and Village residents over a million and a half dollars.
Some of the risks of merger we see include:
- Village citizens will be giving up the localized control they have over Village services such as the Essex Junction Recreation and Parks Department and the Brownell Library.
- Village and Town departments that currently serve a limited population or geographic area within the community will be consolidated into larger, community-wide departments with more centralized control.
- While consolidating Village and Town departments has reduced costs by reducing duplication, larger departments could also require more administrative services.
If merger happens, what will be the immediate effects?
The Trustees and Selectboard have structured the merger plan to have limited short-term impact on the delivery of municipal services throughout the community. The cost of operating Village services that are not presently shared by Town residents will be phased in over twelve years rather than all at once. This “status quo” approach will reduce the financial impact of merger on taxpayers outside the Village while phasing in tax savings for village residents over the same period. At the same time, it reduces the likelihood that taxpayers and elected officials will seek immediate cuts in any municipal services.
Over these twelve years the Village will also retain some of the costs associated with operating a more urbanized community, such as a more aggressive sidewalk plowing policy in the winter.
Does the Town of Essex need to agree with the merger?
Yes. The Town of Essex Selectboard must also put a similar question on a ballot and send it to Town voters, including Village voters, asking them if they wish to merge and form a new government with the Village of Essex Junction.
If approved, the two plans of merger – the Village’s and Town’s – would then be sent to the Vermont Legislature for approval. The two plans would then be consolidated into a single plan and new municipal charter. In Vermont, the Legislature controls municipal charters and can approve, amend, or reject charters independent of the outcome of local voting.
I'm confused. I've received a ballot from Essex Junction, but I thought I lived in Essex Town?
If you received a ballot from the Essex Junction government, then you live in the Village of Essex Junction, which is an incorporated municipal government with all the legal authority and powers as other municipal governments, such as Essex Town. All Village residents are citizens of two governments, the Essex Junction government and the Essex Town government.
Why haven't I received a ballot from the Town of Essex government, asking me to approve a plan of merger with the Village of Essex Junction?
The Town of Essex Selectboard continues to work on its Plan of Merger. They tentatively plan to send out ballots asking about merger for the Town Meeting elections in March of 2021.
Why did the Town delay sending our merger ballots until next spring?
The Selectboard has asked the Legislature to clarify feedback from earlier this year regarding a voter-backed proposal to change the current Essex Town Charter to create a six-member Selectboard, with three members elected from inside the Village and three from outside the Village. The Selectboard did not wish to finalize a merger Charter forming a new government with the Village until they received the Legislature’s response.
You mean the Town's plan of merger could be different from Village's plan of merger we're voting on now?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean merger can’t happen. The Legislature can approve a final plan of merger for a new Essex government as long as there aren’t significant differences between the two merger plans approved by Village voters and Town voters. The differences can be reconciled by the Legislature.
Wouldn't it have been better for the Trustees to wait and join the Selectboard in the Spring so that the two merger plans would be identical?
The Trustees believe the benefits of putting the merger question on a November ballot outweigh the risks of not having identical plans for these reasons:
- We believe the decision of whether or not to merge with the Town is extremely important. All Village residents have a stake in the outcome. We believe the November elections offer the best opportunity for getting the maximum response from Village voters rather than waiting until Essex Town Meeting Day which typically has a much lower response from Village voters.
- We believe the Legislature is very unlikely to provide the Essex Selectboard with the guidance they are seeking to help them finalize their version of the merger plan.
- The merger plan we’re placing before Village voters was developed in close consultation with the Essex Selectboard, the Unified Manager, and legal counsel over two years and was nearly complete in April. We believed there was little more to be gained by prolonging the Charter development process through the Fall and into the Winter, when both governments must devote much of their time to developing budgets for the coming fiscal year for voter approval.
If merger is approved, what will the new community be called?
Essex Town, Essex Junction, the “town,” the “village,” the “junction” – none of those names will change. The new charter will be for the “Town of Essex” and the incorporated Village of Essex Junction will become the unincorporated Village of Essex Junction, just as White River Junction is an unincorporated village in the Town of Hartford.
What happens if merger isn’t approved?
The Village and Town governments, and the services they provide, would stay as they are. Under the shared manager and administration, the two governments would probably keep seeking ways to consolidate costs and share services. But for the foreseeable future Village residents would continue paying a significantly larger share of total municipal expenditures than their Town neighbors. For that reason, the Village Trustees would likely begin research and community conversations about how next to proceed and whether to keep the status quo or to separate from the Town to create an independent Village municipality with no ties to the Town.
Can't find an answer to your questions here? Please contact your Village Trustees or consider attending one of the public meetings in October.