Public Suggests Merger Plan Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

11/16/20 Selectboard Meeting

by Irene Wrenner

November 18, 2020

Earlier this month the Selectboard Chair asked to hear input on the town’s merger plan from people other than the usual suspects. Elaine Haney’s request was granted at the November 16th Selectboard meeting.

 

What about Separation? asked first-timer-to-remote-meetings Ed Daudelin at the Selectboard’s second listening session. 

 

Long-time Village resident Daudelin believes separation is a valid alternative and should be considered equally with merging or not merging. Why has separation never been given much thought?

 

To him, “Separation is important because it lets the Village keep the identity it’s had as an industrial hub of Essex for over 100 years. Now you’re taking our identity away.”

 

This isn’t the first time that someone has publicly uttered the s-word since Sarah Macy, Finance Director, presented a detailed analysis of separation impacts vs merger impacts in September. 

 

However, Haney downplayed the rigor and importance of that analysis during this November meeting, calling the estimates on separation “very back of the napkin”.

 

Actually, Macy spent two months generating her models and a comprehensive report after a late-July request from 27 residents.  The revelation on separation -- that it costs no more than merger but its effects manifest promptly -- contrasts with Haney’s 13-year merger plan. 

 

The audience was then treated to a lesson in merger history according to Haney. She tutored that separation was considered early on, when the SB and Trustees established a Governance Subcommittee.  Members of that committee (including Haney, Max Levy, George Tyler and Irene Wrenner) reviewed a variety of governance models and developed criteria on which to grade them.  

 

Haney reminisced about a chart that ranked the scenarios on such criteria as “would it equalize taxes, would it benefit the future economic development of the community, [and] would it reduce the number of times residents had to vote”. The one with the highest total was merger. It met “more of the goals than any of the other models.”

 

The chart, shown below, contains the actual criteria used by the four elected officials to rank the alternative governance models they had generated.

Not included in the two-year-old analysis were such criteria as preserving planning expertise and priorities; ensuring public input gets incorporated into plans and ordinances; and diversifying representation. Only recently have these been recognized as important considerations.


This author, when called upon, noted that, of the nine options ranked by that team, five were versions of merger, one was status quo, two were forms of separation-and-sharing, and one was separation.

 

Very little time was spent discussing separation back then, because the boards were looking for ways to continue consolidating functions. Also, the assumption was that separation would be cost-prohibitive. 

This author suggested that because we now have new information about separation, and important issues have surfaced, we really should give this option a fresh look.

Despite input from a number of members of the public at both listening sessions, Unified Manager Evan Teich and the Selectboard Chair are resistant to any substantive merger plan changes. They anticipate the Selectboard warning a merger vote for March at their next meeting.  

 

Public to be Heard
Lorraine Zaloom asked how Essex Businesses are faring during the ongoing pandemic. 

 

Teich feels that the business community is preparing for a long haul and urged everyone to buy local. Jim Bernegger, Chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission, explained that, although a database of Essex Businesses has been on their to do list for several years, it has yet to be completed.  This lack of data makes it hard for these volunteers to monitor the pulse of the Essex business community. 

 

More Merger Charter Input

Quite a few folks weighed in on the current state of the Merger charter, several in favor, more against. 

 

Patty Davis noted that before the 2006 merger plan was formulated, voters approved a study of merger. No such vote has taken place this time around.

 

Ken Signorello noted that grand list growth in the TOV is considerably higher than the Village. As TOV property owners pay a growing percentage of town taxes in the years ahead, how does this impact the tax shift split?

 

Signorello also asked how the tax shift was calculated and how it may vary over time. 

 

Finally, he asked what the special taxing district costs estimates are for year 13, when they are set to expire and costs get potentially spread among all town taxpayers.

 

Tracy Delphia noted that one of the traits of a good leader is trust. She’s learned that trust is lacking and people feel they aren’t accurately represented because they don’t have a voice at the table.  Leveling the playing field by implementing equal representation in the form of “3+3” will ultimately lead to a stronger Essex.

 

Many other residents spoke about merger that night and about planning issues. Consider viewing the meeting videotape for a complete picture.

 

Babaroosa, an immersive arts space, is planned for the Essex Experience. As a precursor to an expected request for a tax break, Robert and Teresa Davis introduced their ideas for a 20,000 square foot activity center to be built at the Essex Experience by 2023.

 

Revisions to the human service funding applications were approved. Staff is ready to receive completed forms. Human services funding, totaling up to 1% of the Town budget, have been made since the 1980s.  Recipients will be announced next May.


A racial justice planning task force will meet to help the Town Manager decide on next steps. Pat Murray will represent the Selectboard and Vince Franco is alternate.  

Survey of Governance Subcommittee Members, Autumn 2018

Compared to Haney’s recollection at the meeting, the ranking of governance models included tax equity (as in fairness, not equality), economic and overall sustainability (as in keeping, as opposed to growing), and makes voting easier (as in mailing ballots to voters, rather than cutting back on elections).