by Ken Signorello & Irene Wrenner
August 26, 2020
Staff Suggests Merger is the Way Forward
8/25/2020 Joint Board Meeting
School Tax Primer
Before this week’s inevitable merger conversation on August 25th, the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees took some time to learn about education financing, which makes up the majority of property owners' tax bills.
Brian Donahue, COO of the Essex Westford School District, made a valiant effort to explain to the governing boards how the school tax rate is calculated.
The FY21 School Tax increase will be 5.11% for homeowners whose tax is not adjusted for income sensitivity.
Donahue noted there are 21 factors that go into determining someone’s school tax. (Chart shows several of these factors; click on chart below for enlarged version.) The average Essex $280,000 homeowner will see an increase of approximately $222/year in FY21. For 68% of property owners, this amount may be adjusted for income sensitivity.
Selectboard member Patrick Murray invited Teich to submit costs for one or two critical positions that would help staff work through this interim period. Teich said, depending on tax receipts, he would deliver something at the next joint meeting.
In addition, Selectboard chair Elaine Haney plans to use Teich’s memo of merger-delay costs to help set priorities for the next budget cycle. She is very concerned about the weight that uncertainty about merger puts on staff, worrying that we will lose people and historical knowledge and expertise.
Haney agreed with Teich that, from an operational and financial perspective, merger would be the obvious way to go.
Village Trustee George Tyler cautioned that there is a political component that cannot be dismissed: “We all work for the people”. He consoled Teich: “You’re in the public domain, baby, you’re not in business.”
Merger: What’s Next
Even though the Village is holding a solo merger vote in November, Haney wants to move forward on a Town plan in conjunction with the Trustees. She suggested the governing boards meet with Planning and Zoning boards to glean their thoughts on merger sometime in September.
Haney noted that more negotiation is needed on representation, sidewalk district, cannabis and tobacco, and the 12-year taxation rollout before the Town and Village version of the merger charter are in sync.
Selectboard member Pat Murray complimented Donahue for keeping taxes in line. Specifically, the 2017 merger of schools has reduced costs, until the most recent budget. Donahue credited school merger with providing a different trajectory of expenses, but expenses are still rising.
Unified Manager Evan Teich submitted a memo to the Selectboard that lists, department by department, impacts of delayed merger. He pointed to the delay in passing a merger plan -- or merger not happening at all -- as a reason necessary staffing has been held up for years.
He sought to communicate actual costs and opportunity costs of not yet deciding to merge.
Teich mentioned how the Village Public Works Departments now receives funding from the Town and coordinates with the Town department but the two entities remain separate, without one official overall director. Both Public Works buildings are old and undersized. There’s also a 41-year-old swimming pool whose future viability is unknown.
Administration is in a holding pattern until merger, said Teich, as if merger were inevitable. He explained, “We as a management team believe that merger is the best course of action for the two of your boards.” Status quo would be the worst place for us. Forward gets to finish what you started, equalizing workloads, and so on. Status quo is frustrating to staff, as things bog down.
Regarding the Village-only vote in November, Haney mused: “If it passes, we won’t know why. If it fails, we won’t know why.”
Further, she expressed concern that what the Village votes on in November is unlikely to be what the Town votes on in March. Therefore, the Village will have to vote again in March. Village Trustee President Andrew Brown suggested that difference might be reconciled by the House Governance Operations Committee.
Brown noted the Trustees have several weeks left to tweak the language in their merger charter draft and are willing to discuss its contents with the Selectboard to work toward a meeting of the minds.
Housing Commission Appointments
The Selectboard and Trustees interviewed 16 applicants this summer for 7 seats on the new Essex Housing Commission. After exiting an executive session, they appointed the following 5 Village and 2 TOV residents: