Residents of Vermont’s newest city will vote on an $11.4 million budget, elect two new councilors and weigh in on charter changes at the city’s first annual meeting on April 11.
After decades of joint taxes and repeated debates about whether to separate from or fully merge with Essex Town, the village of Essex Junction became an independent city last July with a population of about 10,500.
“This will be our first annual meeting and our first budget as a separated city,” said City Council President Andrew Brown, adding that he is excited about creating new systems — “local government, nerdy, geeky stuff that I enjoy.”
Independence comes with challenges, of which creating a new government with new leadership is no small part, said City Manager Regina Mahony, who was hired last September.
While Essex Junction has been an independent city for most of the past year, the separation process is still a work-in-progress, Mahony explained, noting that, “we still have a lot of consolidated services like the clerk position and functions over at the town offices.”
Next month, residents are scheduled to vote on an $11.4 million budget for fiscal 2024, which would lead to a 0.4% tax rate increase from the combined village and town rate of fiscal year 2023. This translates to a roughly $11 increase on the annual tax bill for a $280,000 property or a $15.50 increase for a property worth $400,000, city officials told VTDigger.
Village residents previously paid taxes to both municipalities, but Essex Junction residents will now, for the first time, pay one tax. This will not translate to a decrease in taxes, as some hoped. City officials said they kept the increase as small as possible, given inflation and added expenditures. Meanwhile, voters on the town side approved a 22% tax hike on Town Meeting Day.
The drivers of the proposed city budget — Article 1 on the ballot — include salaries for new positions (totaling $353,924), stormwater costs previously included in the town’s budget ($118,700), and a hike for Essex Rescue services ($71,620).
Article 7 on the ballot asks voters to approve a loan of up to $433,700 through the state’s drinking water revolving fund for a lead pipe inventory project.
Four of the eight articles involve amendments to the charter regarding rules around city elections, meetings and conflicts of interest.
Voters will also receive a separate school ballot that asks them to weigh in on a $90 million school budget and an $8.8 million budget for the Center for Technology in Essex. The Essex Westford School District serves Essex town, Essex Junction and Westford.
“I think it’s a budget that ultimately is sensitive to taxpayers and continues to make the investments to address the needs of our students,” said Brian Donahue, the district’s chief operating officer.
The proposed school district budget reflects a 5.6% increase and the Center for Technology in Essex budget is an 8.2% increase over the previous year.
This translates to a tax increase of roughly $160 on a $275,000 home for those who are paying based on their homestead, according to Donahue. For those paying based on income, the increase would be $13 for a household income of $100,000, he said.
On the school board, incumbents Erin Kennedy Knox, the chair, and Scott Brown, the vice chair, are running unopposed.
Essex Junction voters will also choose from three candidates running for two city council seats as George Tyler and Daniel Kerin are not seeking reelection. They are Elaine Haney, Jason Struthers and Marcus Certa.
Haney, executive director of Emerge Vermont, said she brings 20 years of experience in government. A former village trustee and Essex selectboard member, she serves on several committees, including the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
“I have been deeply involved in the community for many years and this is the first time we’re at a point where we really have our future in our own hands,” she said. “There's so much volunteer energy bubbling up that I really want to help harness it and have community conversations about our future and make sure that we’re making smart decisions as we move forward.”
Her priorities, as outlined on her website, include budgeting for a sustainable future, supporting city resources, building a vibrant downtown and promoting inclusion.
Struthers has a background in biopharmaceutical science, skydiving, extreme sports and cannabis medicine, according to his website, and said he supports a conservative approach to spending.
Struthers, the owner of a cannabis business, wanted to serve on the Local Cannabis Control Commission. When he learned the commission is made up of city councilors, he said he was encouraged to run by community members.
“It is easy to talk about issues and wish things were different. It is not until we take action that change occurs. I can no longer sit idly by and observe,” he said. “My goal is to represent the people of Essex, to ensure their voice is heard.”
Another political newcomer, Marcus Certa said there is much to do post-separation. He said he sees serving on the council as an opportunity to give back to a city he loves.
“Being a City Councilor will allow me to participate in a way that goes beyond my single vote. I will be able to engage with my neighbors and work with them to create our new City,” he said in a statement on his website.
Certa has a background in marketing and radio broadcasting — including as the former co-host of WVMT’s morning talk show. He said his priorities include improving public safety by making sure the police department has the resources it needs to function well, and community engagement to ensure the city is transparent about how money is spent and that residents are engaged in the process.
The city’s registered voters will weigh in by Australian ballot at the Champlain Valley Exposition in the Blue Ribbon Pavilion. An informational public meeting is scheduled for April 10 remotely via Zoom.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the relationship between town and village budgets in previous years. Those budgets were distinct. It also incorrectly described the contents of the city's proposed budget.
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