Does it make sense for Johnson to merge its town and village governments?
Both officials and the voters in the town and village back a study of the pros and cons. There’s some thought that the municipal government could be more efficient if the two organizations were merged.
On Sept. 23, the Johnson Select Board and Johnson Village Board of Trustees voted to hire the Center for Governmental Research to study a merger between the two governments. The study will cost $10,000, with the town covering $6,000 and the village $4,000.
The Center for Governmental Research was one of three consulting firms to submit a bid for the merger study; the others are Steadman Hill Consulting, which bid $11,056.80, and Ascent Consulting, which bid $8,000.
The two boards went with the $10,000 bid from the Center for Governmental Research largely because of the expertise of Kent Gardner, who will lead the study. Gardner has extensive knowledge of electric utilities, which will be useful, since the village operates its own small utility. He also has experience studying and dealing with the merger of municipal water, sewer and fire departments, all of which the town or village of Johnson operate.
“The village operates its own electric, water and sewage” utilities, Johnson Town Administrator Brian Story said, and he knows village officials are “especially concerned about our utilities, and how those are going to be resolved.”
The two municipalities had been planning to split the cost down the middle, Story said, but the select board thought the proposal from the Center for Governmental Research was worth picking up the extra $2,000.
Both town and village voters asked for a merger study last year.
Along with the village’s current utilities, the two governments have a few divisions of labor that would need to be addressed.
“They manage the sidewalks, we manage the roads,” Story said. The town has a five-member highway department that doubles as the public works department. Town Clerk Rosemary Audibert said the village water and light departments also have five employees; the sewer plant’s oversight is contracted out to Utility Partners LLC.
All told, the village’s electric utility serves 978 customers, the sewer department 448 customers and the water utility 432.
Other town staff members include Story, a library director and two librarians. Other village staff members include administrator Meredith Birkett. Audibert is the clerk and treasurer for both the town and village, and her assistant Jan Perkins does the same.
Birkett just went on maternity leave, Story said, and he doesn’t expect the merger study to really get rolling until she’s back in a few months.
“We’re being respectful of her maternity leave,” Story said.
He’s been putting out feelers to other towns that have merged village and town governments, such as Stowe and Waterbury. A similar merger is in the works in Essex right now, and he hopes the study will include reports from municipal staff in all three towns and from other municipalities that have merged to learn more about what might work, and what wouldn’t, for Johnson.