The town of Essex voted Tuesday to reject a proposed merger plan that would have consolidated the town government and the village government of Essex Junction.
The 17-vote margin was indicative of how the issue has divided the community: 3,751 voted against the merger, and 3,734 in favor. Thirty ballots were returned without a selection on the merger question.
For both proponents and critics of the merger, property taxes were the most contentious sticking point of the debate.
Essex Junction is a village within the town of Essex, with its own municipal government and about 12,000 residents. The town and village combined have about 22,000 residents.
Essex Junction property owners currently pay taxes to both the village and town governments. Property owners outside the village pay taxes only to the town government.
Merger supporters touted it as a way to streamline the consolidation of services in the two Essex municipal governments and gradually equalize the property tax burden for all town residents. Critical voices from outside the village thought it would be unfair to raise town taxes without receiving any new benefits.
Merger discussions in Essex go back decades. A merger was actually approved by 209 votes in 2006, but a backlash resulted in a rescission vote — essentially a new vote on the merger — and the merger failed by 187 votes.
Talk of a potential merger fell dormant for a few years, but gained momentum again in 2013, when town and village officials began to work together to consolidate municipal services, such as the finance department and the clerk’s office. The communities now share the same municipal and public works managers, while maintaining their own fire departments and separate planning departments.
The consolidations have saved taxpayers $3.4 million since 2013, according to Elaine Haney, chair of the Essex Selectboard, but combining other efforts hit a wall. “What remains to be consolidated is very difficult to do without merging,” Haney said.
Merger critics say Essex officials pushed the merger. In February, the town government sent a 33-page booklet to all Essex residential addresses containing information on the merger, including an explanation on how taxes would change and a “frequently asked questions” section.
The booklet cost $7,174 of taxpayer money to distribute, according to Essex Unified Manager Evan Tiech — $5,739 for printing and $1,795 for postage. The tally does not include the work it took to create the booklet.
“Our own citizens were asking us, ‘Can you please explain this, can you do it in layman’s terms, can you help in any way?’” Tiech said. “This is what came up as an idea,” along with information posted on the municipal website.
Tiech said the booklet was not intended to advocate for or against the merger, though there are multiple examples of positive language throughout, and the booklet includes a letter signed by Haney, the selectboard chair, and Andrew Brown, president of the Essex Junction board of trustees, that states, “… We believe merging our two municipalities is the best way to achieve a more vibrant, equitable and sustainable community.”
An introduction to an analysis of merger pros and cons said, “This list will hopefully help everyone understand that merger is not the huge negative some are making it out to be. It’s actually an important step forward for our community towards a future that’s more equitable, affordable, and sustainable.”
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, some Essex Junction officials talked of a “separation” plan in the event of a failed merger vote. Advocates from the town outside the village were unsure if that proposal was being brandished as a negotiating tactic, or if it was a real possibility.
An analysis conducted last fall showed that taxes would still go up for residents of the town outside the village in the event of a separation, albeit to a lesser degree than if the communities were to merge. It isn’t clear where those talks currently stand.
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