Essex Junction board expected to move ahead with November separation vote

The Five Corners intersection in Essex Junction is seen in February. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Essex Junction officials expect to start planning Tuesday for a potential Nov. 2 vote on separation, in which village residents would decide if they want to break away from the town of Essex and become their own city.

Essex Junction is a village within Essex town. Together, just over 22,000 people call Essex home, with around 11,000 living within village limits. 

Four of the five Essex Junction board of trustees members said they plan to support a vote in November. The fifth said he was waiting on more details. Among the items on Tuesday’s agenda is whether mail-in ballots would be allowed or if in-person voting would be required.

The decision to separate would drastically alter property tax rates around Essex — possibly driving town rates up by as much as 20% and pushing village rates down by 20%, according to a financial analysis done by the town and village’s joint finance agency. 

The way it stands, village property owners are taxed by both village and town governments and can vote on representatives in the village and the town because they live in both. However, property owners who live in the town outside the village pay taxes only to the town government and can vote for town-level officials.

That means that village property owners are on the hook for capital projects within the whole of Essex, and in some cases, pay for duplicate services. On the other hand, town property owners generally have to worry only about the area outside of the village.

For example, the village pays for 100% of its own fire department, but it also contributes 42% of the town’s fire department’s expenses, paying what some argue is more than their fair share of fire protection for all. 

“Separation means we would only be taxed for the services we receive,” said Andrew Brown, chair of the village trustees. 

If the village separated and became its own city, the town would be left with a reduced residency and around a 42% reduction in property tax, and the village would no longer support the town without full reciprocity

For decades, Essex has tried to even out the tax burden by merging town and village operations and consolidating individual services. But when the most recent town-village merger vote failed by 26 votes in the spring, village residents encouraged the board of trustees, through a nonbinding resolution, to throw in the towel and start looking into total separation. 

Separation would be particularly complicated because the town and village governments have become so intertwined over time. They have worked together to consolidate services and avoid duplication, with the ultimate goal of merging the two governments. 

For example, the police department and financial services agencies serve both the village and town. If the village became its own city, the village would have to either create brand-new departments and services from scratch or contract with the town. 

The controversies are largely in the details. How would the town continue to fund its library if the village separates and no longer pays 42% of library costs? How quickly should village and town taxes be altered to properly support two totally separate entities? What services should be changed or cut? How much of a tax increase can the town absorb? 

Town Selectboard Chair Andrew Watts said town officials are not even having those discussions with residents in detail yet because “it would scare people.” 

There is no shortage of details to figure out, and if the town and village don’t come up with a deal, the Vermont Legislature could vote down separation even if the village chose to break off, said state Rep. Lori Houghton, D-Essex Junction. 

“As a representative who has to basically pitch this and get this through the legislative body, I’m looking for an effort to be made between the village trustees and the town selectboard to help make our transition to an independent city as easy as possible for the town,” Houghton said.

Essex is far from the only village-town combo in Vermont history. Winooski used to be part of Colchester before it split off, and East Montpelier used to be part of Montpelier. Many communities — including Stowe and Waterbury — once had village governments, but now have only town governments.  

In Essex, the area that is now the village urbanized first, according to Brown. Residents wanted services such as a fire department. But the area that now encompasses Essex Town was still very rural and residents didn’t want to pay for some of the services more useful to a more consolidated area. So the village within the town was created to provide services the village wanted but the town didn’t. 

Following the arrival of IBM (now GlobalFoundries) in the 1950s, there was a huge spike in population, including town residents who lived outside the village. At that point, town residents wanted services such as a fire department and a town manager, so the town government began establishing its own services that exclusively served people outside the village.  

Now, 70 years later, after trying to merge the communities multiple times to no avail, separation seems a likely choice.

Back in the spring, after the latest town-village merger proposal failed, village residents voted by a 4-1 ratio in favor of looking into separation, with about 2,700 voters supporting the move and 700 opposed. 

That’s why village trustee George Tyler says he would support putting the question of separation to the voters on Nov. 2. 

“We’ve reached a crossroads. We’re not going to write the perfect merger charter that makes everyone happy and we can’t keep looking for the holy grail,” he said. “We got a very clear mandate from the voters to look into separation and as a board member you have to listen to them; that’s first and foremost.”

Four board members — Tyler, Brown, Amber Thibeault and Daniel Kerin — say they would support a separation vote. Raj Chawla said he’s waiting on more information. 

The next move is to decide whether or not mail-in ballots should be used in addition to in-person voting should a vote be called. Trustees said they won’t officially schedule a vote until at least late September.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Winooski’s relationship to Colchester, the number of people living within Essex Junction’s village limits, the reduced residency and tax reduction numbers, and how the upcoming vote will be scheduled and approved.

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