Merger Plan (and Front Porch Forum) Unzipped
2/16/21 Selectboard Meeting
by Irene Wrenner
February 18, 2021
Selectboard Chair Elaine Haney opened a second public hearing on the merger charter with the now-familiar presentation that sums up the contents of the 48-page booklet mailed to all households at taxpayer expense.
Many of its claims have been challenged in a series of Front Porch Forum posts by long-time Selectboard member Andy Watts.
Three of five Selectboard members voted to put this particular merger plan on the March 2nd ballot; they spent 35 minutes PowerPointing before any public comment was allowed on February 16th, a repeat of February 1st. The other two members, who’d considered the plan “incomplete” and declined to warn it, did not participate.
Updated merger costs and savings estimates were shown at the very end. FY20 numbers were still front-and-center, potentially confusing viewers as to which estimates to consider.
The same pros and cons were offered: Depending on where you live, taxes will go down temporarily, taxes will go up temporarily, and better child care will be offered. Yet, each of these statements has been disputed.
Upon careful examination, TIV / Village taxes will increase more slowly but not decrease, and overall municipal taxes will still rise. TOV taxpayers will see higher increases over the 12-year phase-in period.
The cumulative effect of the advertised increase / decrease was skipped during the presentation. A question from the public forced that acknowledgement.
As for child care, current waiting lists hint that any increased demand due to merger cannot be matched by an increase in supply.
One TIV speaker threatened separation if merger fails.
Another suggested that the passage of “3+3” — the equal representation charter change passed by voters last year — would be vulnerable at the Statehouse if the Town’s merger plan didn’t pass. Neither is tied to this vote.
Haney was ready to address the latter comment, reading from a nine-month-old letter from two members of the House Government Operations Committee: “We look forward to re-visiting a charter change once the voters of the Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction have approved a plan of merger.”
The Retorter has learned that this letter was not the product of an HGO committee conversation. Nine other committee members were not even aware of its existence before or immediately after it was sent.
A River Road resident noted that Village voters have a say in every tax dollar they pay, while he has none, He can’t support sharing the Village tax bill via a merged budget.
Other public members spoke in favor of merger in humanistic terms: it’s time to just move on or move forward; status quo is unsustainable.
Subsequent Selectboard business included discussing their communication policy for individual members as it applies to Front Porch Forum. The question posed by Andy Watts: Is it OK for an individual board member, without the preapproval of the board, to post townwide?
No vote, but consensus was that so long as content is labeled as opinions of the writer, Board members should feel free to post townwide.
Among the public comments was a request (and a second) that elected officials ensure that every resident gets the ability to post comments of the same length on FPF.
Right now, a variety of factors are used by FPF to determine who is eligible to create longer postings. In other words, not every resident who enrolls has equal posting privileges within their home neighborhood. More than $5,000 of taxpayer money goes to FPF each year via the Town and Village budgets.