COVID Won't Delay Town "Merger" Vote
12/7/20 Selectboard Meeting
by Ken Signorello & Irene Wrenner
December 9, 2020
The meat of the December 7th Selectboard meeting, as for so many others over the last year, was Merger.
It was time for the Selectboard to put up or postpone. Staff wants to begin preparing the necessary documentation, warning, and marketing materials for the next election.
Selectboard members voiced concern about warning a March vote, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person meetings impossible and virtual meetings difficult, even for folks without technology challenges.
The board noted, the state predicts an estimated 9% school tax increase is looming. This would compound any tax increases faced by the TOV and douse any decrease in the downtown district.
Al Bombardier, a school board member in attendance, noted that EWSD has spent $1 million on substitute teachers alone this year. He expects increased school costs at the local level due to COVID, in addition to the state’s estimate. He doubted Essex will escape the full impact of the shortfall.
Selectboard member Dawn Hill-Fleury opposed separate tax districts for a “merged” community. She hadn’t planned to vote NO tonight but recently came to that decision. Hill-Fleury received emails and calls from 30 people, asking the Selectboard to put off the vote until COVID runs its course.
Selectboard member Andy Watts said the merger plan was "not ready" and doubted the value of the savings vs the cost to implement the Special Tax Districts.
He had specific questions about the 12-year Village Capital Tax District, when the capital plan for the Village only goes out for five years. He got conflicting answers from staff as to how capital would be funded. “It seems like we’re not clean on what we’re doing.”
Selectboard Chair Elaine Haney pushed back, “The charter seems pretty clear to me. . . [Yet, from Watts] at every meeting there is a new question.”
As many members of the public weighed in, both pro and con, a recurring theme was that remote meetings are not sufficient for the public to be informed nor to debate this monumental issue.
As if on cue, the meeting was repeatedly zoombombed (interrupted with unwanted, disruptive intrusions by outsiders); hand-raising recognition cues weren’t working right; and one resident was dropped while speaking.
A local software developer, Brian Shelden, suggested that online meetings have actually increased public participation, and a pandemic is no reason to postpone the vote.
Board Member On a Roll
After hearing from the public, the board discussion continued.
Freshman Selectboard member Vince Franco was highly agitated. He claimed that people are fearful of change and of this merger. He bemoaned that anybody currently speaking in opposition to the merger plan now, has waited and not shown up before.
The Chair admonished Franco, explaining that many of the folks in that very meeting have attended more meetings than him, participating regularly.
While Haney had pleaded for feedback from new people just a month ago, here was her junior peer attacking the few new people who showed up for this meeting.
He criticized two merger opponents for not stepping up to run when Max Levy quit the Selectboard (he did not) and Annie Cooper did after her first year. Franco ran unopposed after a Village-based candidate withdrew. Ten people applied for appointment to Cooper's vacated seat.
In fact, the two residents named in his tirade had led an “unprecedented” (per Haney last winter) citizen-driven, successful charter change campaign.
Showing his nescience, Franco did not realize that the merger vote would be held the day after the, now informational only, town meeting in March and asked for that to be clarified.
Haney “completely understands” pandemic concerns but wasn’t letting empathy slow her march to merge.
“We were requested by the Trustees to put this on the ballot in November,” she said, underscoring how this effort is driven by the Trustees.
“We took the risk, and waited, so we could do more research and have more public input.” Yet, when public hearings were announced, she made it clear that no significant changes would be made.
In closing, Haney hyperbolized: “This process has had more thought, more expertise, and more public input into it than any other attempt at any other initiative in this town’s history.”
Split Decision on Merger
The following motion was put forth by Murray and seconded by Franco:
That the Selectboard commit to including a question on the March 2021 ballot asking voters if the Town of Essex shall adopt the plan of merger of the Town and Essex and Village of Essex Junction and the proposed charter for the merged community.
They and Haney voted in favor of the motion; Watts and Hill-Fleury voted against it.
Next possible stop for the merger train is in January: warning a vote for March.
As part of recent consolidations, the Town is paying the Village Highway costs, allowing for an annual increase each year of up to 6%. For FY21 the budgeted amount is $1,192,960.
The Village was asking to add its “Highway Rolling Stock” (vehicles that roll and maintain roads) into the Town payment, too, at $140,100 per year. This would result in a 16.7% increase in the next budget cycle.
In exchange, the Town would eliminate its TOV-only Highway Tax that has existed for over a hundred years.
Bottom line: a TOV taxpayer pays a bit more, the TIV slightly less toward Highway expenses. More details can be found on pages 51 - 52 of the meeting packet.
For a 300K assessed-value house, the TOV increase would be $1.80 and a TIV house would see a tax savings of $3.00. On a grander scale, this represents a total tax shift of $18,400 to the TOV taxpayers. Not a significant amount, considering the Town budget is about $15 million.
It was acknowledged that this Village rolling stock, although capitalized, going forward, by Town tax payers would remain the property of the Village and under the direction of the their Highway department.
This trade-off eliminates the lone TOV-only tax and simplifies the tax structure.
At least two members of the public suggested consolidating the highway departments into a single town wide highway department, like the police department, to simplify and spread costs even more completely.
Canoe Access to the Winooski from Essex?
Nick Warner from Winooski Valley Park District offered anecdotes from their successful COVID summer and budget data for next year.
The pandemic has resulted in dramatically increased park use, which he expects to remain steady afterwards. WVPD includes two Parks (Woodside Park, Overlook Park) and part of one (Colchester Pond) in Essex.
The FY22 ask is $61,530 from Essex, a 3.5% increase from FY21. Andy Watts made one request of the WVPD. He hopes for park access to the Winooski river, Essex’s entire southern border.
After an executive session, Annie Cooper was appointed to the Economic Development Commission. That leaves one EDC seat yet to be filled, along with vacancies on several other committees.