On page 22 of the merger booklet, there is a justification for the Sidewalk District. It says “The sidewalks needed to be plowed throughout the Village so that all the kids could walk to school. That practice continues to this day because it is the level of service Village residents expect and pay for and many Village children still walk to school.”
I have highlighted a couple of concerns with this District in public meetings. The justification says that Village children need to be able to safely walk to school. Due to a bus driver shortage, the Essex Westford School District has designated the neighborhoods near Essex Elementary and Founders/Essex Middle School as walking neighborhoods. So, there are also children outside of the Village who don’t have bus service and walk to school. Due to the fact that the proposed charter specifically only includes Village sidewalks, the two neighborhoods outside the Village that are walking neighborhoods cannot be included and since a tax would be charged to the Village for their sidewalk plowing, it would be illegal to provide the same level of service to the walking neighborhoods outside the Village without also taxing them.
To be clear, the walking neighborhoods outside of the Village do get their sidewalks plowed but it is when Town Public Works can get to it. Lately, it has been around 11am, well after school has started and, depending on how much snow, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Full disclosure here, I live in one of those neighborhoods and I have 205 feet of sidewalk. During this year’s budgeting process, I asked a number of times for an assessment of what it would cost to add the TOV walking neighborhoods to the budget so that both TOV and Village children would have the same benefit of safely walking to school. I was told that it was too expensive to calculate. Given this assessment, I struggle with the statement that we can plow the entire Village for $125,000 a year but it is prohibitively expensive to plow the TOV walking neighborhood sidewalks.
The way this District is set up, it effectively eliminates the possibility of intentionally also plowing any TOV sidewalks with the same urgency as the Village gets for 12 years. So, we are prioritizing the safety of Village children over TOV children.
The merger booklet also says that the Village pays for their sidewalk plowing. Six years ago, an agreement was signed by the Village Trustees and the Town Selectboard to consolidate public works services into the Town. This agreement was also approved by voters when the relevant budgets were approved. So, for the past six years, Town taxes have paid for Village sidewalk plowing. The statement in the merger booklet that says that the Village pays for their sidewalk plowing is incorrect. OK, yes, they do pay for it through their Town taxes but so do we all.
The other thing this district does is establish a precedent for charging a higher tax for residents who live in areas where services are more expensive. It is much more expensive to maintain gravel roads compared to paved roads. This sidewalk district establishes the possibility of charging anyone who lives on a gravel road a higher tax.
I believe that all Town expenses should be borne by all residents equally and sidewalk plowing should be established by policy rather than by privilege. It has also been said that the sidewalk district has been proposed as a sacrifice for Village residents who will, for 12 years, pay an extra tax so that TOV taxes will be lower by the amount it costs to plow the Village sidewalks. If you do the math, the annual savings for the average $280,000 TOV home is on the order of $2.
So, for a savings of $2 a year, the TOV is prevented from addressing the safety of their children walking to school in the winter while it is guaranteed in the Village for 12 years.