Rockingham, Bellows Falls To Vote On Merger

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(Host) Officials in Rockingham and its village of Bellows Falls have agreed to bring a long-debated merger to a vote on town meeting day.

In order to move the merger forward, they’ve left a few sticking points to be settled, if the two entities become one.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) The village of Bellows Falls is a single square mile within the 44-mile town of Rockingham. But the village has its own police and fire departments and its own board of trustees.

A little over half the people in Rockingham are also residents of Bellows Falls. They pay taxes to both the village and the town.

Tom MacPhee chairs the town selectboard.

(MacPhee) "And the goal has been over the years to merge governments so that it’s controlled by one select board for the betterment of all and cost containment – because we are the highest taxed — if you live in the Village of Bellows Falls – you’re the highest taxed village in the state of Vermont."

(Keese) MacPhee says the duplication of services doesn’t make sense. But change isn’t easy.

The merger has been debated since the 1960s. It was last brought to a vote, and rejected, in 1994.

Last spring the town and village agreed to study it again.

This time, the big sticking point has been police. The Bellows Falls Police Department, which only serves the village, has an almost million-dollar annual budget.

MacPhee says the village would like to spread that cost, or some of it, to the whole town.

(MacPhee) "And people in the outside rural area of Rockingham do not want to pick up those services."

(Keese) After lengthy debate this week officials on both sides agreed to table the contentious issue and narrow the vote to include only turning the village and the town into one municipality.

The plan they’re developing would give the town two years after the merger, if it’s approved, to settle the police issue.

Stephen Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says Bellows Falls isn’t alone in struggling with these issues.

He says the move to create separate village governments goes back about a hundred years.  

(Jeffrey) "The areas that were having commercial development, industrial development were demanding… sewers, water, street lights, paved roads, sidewalks… and you know, someplace along the line police departments. Where the rest of the town, which was still agrarian, did not see the need for those additional government services."

(Keese) So Jeffrey says the Legislature created a mechanism that allowed a portion of a town to provide those services and charge taxes for them.

Jeffery says of the nearly 70 villages that existed, only a little more than 40 remain.

Jeffrey says his own village of Northfield has studied merger for years.

(Jeffrey) "I think Woodstock‘s been looking at it on and off, Waterbury‘s been looking at it on and off.  Essex and Essex Junction continue to talk about whether they should merge or whether Essex Junction village should separate and become its own city."

(Keese) Jeffrey says the movement isn’t all in one direction. He says Barre City and Montpelier are examples of former villages that actually separated and struck out on their own.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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