Boards Discuss Separation-with-Sharing
Trustee & Selectboard Meetings, June 2021
by Irene Wrenner
June 24, 2021
After the failed March and April Merger votes, the Village is now considering Separation from the Town.
Both the Town Selectboard and Village Trustees, at their respective June meetings, examined each department to determine which they’d like to keep apart and which to share.
Targeting November for a Village Separation vote, the Trustees began the discussion of the benefits and costs of breaking away, in whole or in part, at their June 8th Meeting.
Adding full-time staff in several areas, building a new server room for Information Technology (IT), and erecting a new vault for land records are among the potential expenses that led long-time Trustee George Tyler to recall that the push for Merger was about saving money, but Separation may have the opposite effect.
Tyler noted, “If we say one of the key factors that’s driving this Separation is the underlying tax burden and the unequal distribution of the tax burden; if we come away from all of this and we are hitting Essex Jct, residents with an even larger tax burden; if the cost of Separation is ... an increased cost, I think it’s gonna be a very hard sell ...
"So, I think you have to look at some areas where there might be economies of scale, maintaining certain relationships with the town.”
Village President Andrew Brown stated, “When I think of an economy of scale, for me that’s a discussion and a conversation with an eye to merging. And frankly, I don’t care about economy of scale going forward with Separation.
"What I care about is doing what is best for the current Essex Jct. residents, businesses and, moving forward, the future city of Essex Jct. residents and businesses and serving them the best as we possibly can. So if it means we lose an economy of scale in that process, it’s fine by me.”
On most issues Andrew Brown and Dan Kerin prioritized the freedom to control the Village’s destiny, with Amber Thibault sometimes voting with them and at other times voting with Tyler and Raj Chawla, who expressed a willingness to share in order to save money, so long as the Village has a voice in shared services.
Chawla claimed the Village office needs additional staff to interface with the public. He noted the Village has no resources to handle citizens’ negative feedback:
“How do we address that, for enforcement but also for quality of life? … It seems like we are woefully short-staffed or woefully unprepared to deal with anything. For instance, residents can’t get a hold of anybody, but I’m pretty certain developers are getting to whoever they want on the cell phone.”
The Trustees are eager to have their own Real Estate Assessor. However, Town/Village Manager Evan Teich emphasized the Town Assessor would do just fine by the Village; 99% of their duties are determined by state statute and standard procedures, not local practices. These duties would not require full-time staff for just the Village.
Brad Luck, who tried unsuccessfully to combine the Town’s Parks & Recreation Department and Essex Junction Recreation & Parks (EJRP) into a Special Taxing District in 2016, recently proposed combining the two into a Village-only department to be shared with the Town in the way the Town’s Police Department is currently sharing Police services with the Village.
40 minutes into the first “in-person” Trustee Meeting after COVID restrictions were lifted. Technical difficulties forced officials to go remote leaving meeting attendees in a mostly empty room.
Luck’s rationale was that EJRP has 21 full-time employees, compared to the Town’s 7 FTE’s.
On June 21st, the Selectboard countered Luck’s proposal of a permanent Village takeover of Town Rec with a willingness to share Parks and Rec in the short-term only.
At the June 22nd Trustee meeting Luck indicated that short-term sharing for Parks and Rec was not acceptable. He prefers a clean break from the start.
Public feedback via post-meeting surveys revealed a preference to keep the departments separate. The Trustees anticipate that reciprocal access to parks and classes can be worked out either way.
The Selectboard has offered to share IT services short-term. However, Luck is seeking quotes for outsourcing or setting up a separate IT infrastructure.
Two potential locations for a Village IT department were suggested: the water treatment plant or Maple Street Park.
The Town also is willing to share its Clerk short-term, but based on staff input, the Trustees have indicated they want their own Clerk from day one.
One suggestion for saving money would be to hire a Human Resources Director who could also serve as an Assistant Manager.
The currently consolidated Finance Department would be shared for at least five years. Separation, if passed, would take effect on July 1, 2024 at the earliest.
Both the Selectboard and Trustees agree, at this time, that sharing the Police Department – the largest part of our Town budget – makes sense. Especially since Village taxpayers will be paying off a bond on the Police Facility through 2035. Just how much Village residents will pay annually and how much oversight of the Police Department they may have remains to be seen.
Readers may recall that an alternative to Merger, known as Separate and Share (SAS), was proposed in July 2019 by a member of the public, who explained SAS and compared it to Merger at www.SeparateandShare.com.
Essex High School students performed a song supporting SAS at a September Selectboard Meeting in 2019.
Any Separation Plan passed by Village voters would need approval from the state legislature, which could additionally require Town approval.