NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 27, 2013

Councilors agree to mayor's spending plans

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — The City Council’s finance committee endorsed four free cash spending proposals put forth by the mayor after a lengthy discussion, setting the stage for each to be voted on at the council’s next meeting on April 9.

After hours of deliberation, the finance committee unanimously endorsed a proposal to allocate $125,000 in free cash — or unspent tax dollars — toward improvements in existing city parks, with a caveat that at least $100,000 be put toward the Town Park and most of the rest toward the Collins Street Playground.

The committee also endorsed a proposal to put $25,000 of free cash toward the restoration of city war memorials by a vote of 8-1, with Councilor Donna McClure casting the only no vote, along with $20,000 of free cash toward the hiring of a solar park development consultant by a 7-2 vote.

The closest vote was on using $30,000 to hire a city branding consultant to help market Amesbury and bring in prospective developers. That proposal was endorsed 5-4 after Councilor Allen Neale cast the fifth and deciding vote.

Originally the four proposals were lumped together in one bill, but the council voted to split them up into individual parts after councilors James Kelcourse and Joseph McMilleon protested that the items had little to do with one another and were lumped together as a political ploy.

Kelcourse argued that by lumping the four proposals together, the councilors were being put in a position where they had to weigh proposals that they favored, like the parks and war memorials portions, with ones like the branding consultant that they didn’t think was a good idea. If they voted against the bill in that case, Kelcourse said, then they would feel the wrath of angry moms upset about the park portion not being passed.

“Since when do we start piggybacking things?” Kelcourse asked. “I think each one of these things deserve their own analysis.”

The city branding consultant proposal was the one that drew the most skepticism from the councilors and from the audience, many of whom suggested that it would be a waste of money and that Amesbury already has a brand.

But one resident who spoke up in support of the idea was Scott Mandeville, a new resident who countered that notion by saying he’d never heard of Amesbury before when he was first looking for a home, and when he checked it out, he found it to be a beautiful community with affordable houses, and he moved here as a result.

“We need to think carefully about future development and also low property values,” Mandeville said. “That was a great motivator for us, and that’s something we should capitalize on and encourage more young people to come here.”

Among the councilors in support of the idea, the notion was that the branding consultant was a misnomer and that the proposal is really about creating a comprehensive marketing pitch that you can present to developers to bring them into town. Councilor Bob Lavoie said the consultant would be an investment and the city hasn’t gotten anything done by just sitting around and waiting for businesses to come.

“A lot of business people believe you need to spend money to make money; we can’t just do the same thing and expect a different result,” Lavoie said. “We have to make an investment and that’s how I view this.”

The city currently has $1.27 million in certified free cash, and some of that will likely be put toward the snow and ice removal budget, which is currently $150,000 over budget due to the harsh winter, Mayor Thatcher Kezer said during his opening remarks. If both this proposal and a separate one to put $200,000 in free cash toward road and sidewalk repair ultimately pass, the city will be left with about $600,000 in free cash to hold onto until next year.

Kezer added that the city usually generates about $600,000 in free cash annually, meaning next year the city would wind up with about the same amount of free cash as it started with this year.

The meeting was originally expected to focus primarily on the financial implications of creating Heritage Park in the Lower Millyard, but the free cash issue wound up dominating the discussion after the finance committee decided to tackle it first.

By press time, the finance committee was just beginning to discuss the Heritage Park items, and Neale said he didn’t expect any recommendations to be made that night, given the late hour.

If there is any leftover business, the finance committee will pick up where it left off at a future meeting. The council previously scheduled an additional meeting for tonight if necessary, but McClure said the councilors don’t typically meet on Wednesday nights, so it will depend on whether enough of them can make it.

Regardless, the finance committee is expected to weigh in on all of the issues prior to the City Council’s next full meeting on April 9.