A public hearing, held last week to see what Johnson residents think about merging their town and village governments, fittingly had the look of a casual wedding. The village people sat on the right, the town people on the left.
And, like many domestic partnerships, there was some bickering mixed in with the sometimes-strained bonhomie.
“There is some ill will in the community,” said Kent Gardner, an economist hired to study the two separate municipalities. He said merger talks have “created a fair bit of rancor.”
The study is being conducted by the Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit that Gardner said was founded in 1915 by George Eastman, of Kodak fame. The town paid $6,000 for the study and the village paid $4,000.
That study should be finished in the next couple of weeks, and could provide a road map toward merging. Or it could provide evidence that everyone should let things continue the way they are.
“Plenty of governments say they’re just fine staying just the way they are,” Gardner said.
Government mergers have become somewhat commonplace in Vermont in recent years, with small school districts consolidating into larger ones.
Gardner — a resident of Rochester, N.Y., who has more experience working with towns and villages in that state — said it’s actually fairly rare to see Vermont villages dissolve or merge with the towns around them. Not that plenty of municipalities don’t talk — or grumble — about it on occasion.
There’s been grumbling in Johnson about the division of responsibility that Gardner said can actually make it tougher to merge governments; it’s easier to argue for a merger when both governments do a lot of the same things.
How divided is Johnson when it comes to what the town does and what the village does? The five line workers with the Johnson Electric Department are also responsible for plowing the sidewalks. The town is responsible for the roads.
That’s just one example sure to be included in the merger study report.
When Gordy Smith, chair of the village trustees, said he doesn’t see the town out there doing that work, resident Beth Foy said that kind of comment, calling people out in public, is “what got us here in the first place.”
Johnson town resident Jen Turner said she supports merging the governments, saying people sometimes have to go through both layers of bureaucracy to get things done.
“As someone who had to do a project and had to navigate two boards, it was not pleasant,” Turner said.
Gardner warned, however, “government doesn’t suddenly get easy because you change the structure.”