Reporter debrief: After two recent failed merger attempts, Essex Junction votes to secede from Essex Town
When voting to merge didn't work, Essex Junction voted overwhelmingly to secede from Essex Town and become its own city.
This week, the Village of Essex Junction overwhelmingly voted in favor of becoming an independent city and split from Essex Town. Counted ballots showed 3,370 votes cast in favor of the split, with 411 opposed.
Sign-off on a city charter from both state legislators and the governor have to take place first, so residents can expect no big changes as of yet. This latest vote was the most resounding vote in favor of the split.
VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Chittenden County reporter Lana Cohen, of VTDigger about her recent article, "Essex Junction residents vote to become an independent city." Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Engisch: Lana, this vote showed a rather overwhelming majority wanting the breakup — 3,070 votes to 411. This isn't the first time we've been here. Tell us about a little of the history of the votes for and against separation?
Yes, so this is something that's been going on for decades. And so actually, Essex Junction and Essex Town have considered merging many times in the past.
The most recent discussion over merging happened last spring. And that resulted in a failed vote where Essex Junction and Essex Town residents voted against combining the two entities. And that is really what set off this decision to look into total succession.
That's what set off Essex Junction’s decision to look into secession from Essex Town.
Over the years, the municipalities have looked into merging. And actually, over the past decade, they've kind of done a lot of the merging work without officially merging the communities on a governmental level. So they have combined a lot of services. For example, they share a finance director, I believe, they share an IT director, and a lot of other different services. So they were kind of preparing for this merge.
But then, in March of last year, the two towns voted against merging. And then again, in April, they voted against merging. And so that really had Essex Junction leadership, and residents looking into, “Okay, this is not going to happen. Like, we've tried this twice. We've tried this in decades past, it's not going to succeed. What are other options?”
Yeah. Tell me what was on the table. You mentioned some of the combined services that have happened with, you know, over the recent months. They also — the town in the village — share a police department and the Parks and Recs department were combined. Now that this vote is for separation, what happens now? What other things does it affect?
So there's one big thing that it's going to affect, and that is property taxes. This is a story that all goes back to the money.
In the separation, Essex Junction is looking at their property taxes decreasing by around 7%. And then on the converse, the Town of Essex will have their property taxes go up, or will have to cut some services in order to make up for a loss of property tax revenue that they used to receive from the town.
So as it stands, Essex Town receives 42% of its property taxes from the Junction. So it's really unclear exactly how much property taxes are going to go up when Essex Junction completes secession. But they're going to have to do something to make up for that loss in revenue. So that's really the big thing on the table. But besides that, leadership from both sides say not a lot is going to change.
So for example, the police force will continue to serve both entities and that was kind of a big question, if you're really concerned: Will they have the same access to emergency response? And the answer that Essex leadership is giving is yes, residents will, and that the police force will continue to serve both communities. It'll just be paid for in a slightly different way.
Now that this vote is through, what is the next step towards actually Essex Junction becoming its own city?
It's actually not expected that Essex Junction will become the City of Essex until 2024. So people aren't going to see it changed, right? Like they just talked about this. People might forget that they even voted for this by the time Essex actually becomes a city.
And that's because first Essex has to be ... it has to go through the Legislature.
And what's really important about this is they have to show that Essex Junction becoming the City of Essex is not going to have an untenable negative impact on the town of Essex, that it's not going to create such a high tax increase that the town collapses or anything crazy like that.
And so they really have to show that this is going to work, that basically the city is going to be able to work, that the town is going to be able to work, that they're creating two separate functional entities.
And then once that passes through the Legislature, then that goes to Gov. Phil Scott's desk, and Gov. Phil Scott has to put his stamp of approval on it. And then that's the end of that process. And that process, really, it kind of has an unidentified time frame, right. So the goal is January 2024. But that's actually not for sure.