AMESBURY — Amesbury's per capita spending is higher than what communities of similar size spend on average to deliver services to constituents, but bringing it in line with the average would mean 18 percent cuts to services.
That's what a recently formed Ad Hoc Tax Committee has discovered since their first meeting on Feb. 25, and that's the information the nine-member committee will be using to try to determine what it would take to lower Amesbury's tax rate — currently ranked fifth highest in the state.
Invited by the Municipal Council to study what contributes to the high taxes in Amesbury, the committee was formed in early February and has met twice so far, according to former Municipal Councilor and committee Chairman Jonathan Sherwood. During that time, they've delved into the budget and ended up taking a hard look at Amesbury's per capita spending, he said. Most of the members have been critical of how much Amesbury spends compared to other communities.
"After a first organizational meeting on Feb. 25, the committee dove into the question of affordability at its March 4 meeting," Sherwood said in a recently released report of the committee's findings to date. "The committee looked at per capita spending for the next six larger and the next six smaller communities, in terms of population."
What they found is that Amesbury spends 18 percent more than the average when it comes to providing fire, police, school and public works services to residents. That means in order to bring figures more in line with similar communities, Amesbury would have to trim $8.3 million off its $47 million budget, which could lay the groundwork for a difficult discussion on how that would affect services.
"Since the schools, public works, water, sewer and public safety make up the vast majority of the town's budget, this is where we would have to look for substantial cuts and savings, to bring us toward average," stated Sherwood. "Our final meetings will be looking at this and the potential impacts on services."
Sherwood said the committee was split on whether cutting 18 percent off the town's service budget to get taxes under control was a good idea. He said the committee has not weighed in formally on whether to recommend the cuts to the Municipal Council on April 1.
"That remains to be seen," said Sherwood when asked if they endorsed the cuts as a group. "That's a big, big chunk. There were some members of the community there and some members of the committee that were interested in exploring how we might get to that level. There were other members of the committee, myself included, who weren't really comfortable with that. There was a mix."
According to 2008 figures released by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Amesbury spends $166.26 per capita on providing fire-fighting service to townspeople, while the average community of the same size spends $99 per capita. Where Amesbury spends $202.43 on police services — the highest of 13 Massachusetts communities of similar size — the average costs elsewhere are $158.11 per capita.
Amesbury spends more for general fund expenditures as well, ranking second highest of the 13 similarly sized municipalities with $2,867.56, as opposed to the average $2,384.82 per person other communities spend.
According to figures compiled by Ad Hoc Committee member Lane Glenn, Amesbury could save $7,930,935 if it brought its general fund expenditures more in line with the average, and another $1.83 million if it brought its fire and police costs closer to the average.
Glenn observed several months ago that this would reduce the tax rate by $4.17 per $1,000 of their property's value, saving residents approximately $1,384 annually. While many have expressed a desire this year to reduce their tax burden, such large cuts might not play well with constituents who depend on town service levels remaining intact.
Ultimately, examining the numbers has been helpful but it proves that it's difficult to compare Amesbury to similarly populated towns across the state, Sherwood said.
"How do you really compare us to other communities?" asked Sherwood. "You'll have some that participate in regional schools, so their education budget is different. Some have volunteer fire departments, so their budget is 80 percent lower."
Others used in the comparison have four times as many vacation homes as Amesbury, which contributes to a much higher tax base, said Sherwood.
"You scratch the surface of those communities and you see some real differences," he said.
Two more meetings of the Ad Hoc Tax Committee will be held prior to April 1, when it's expected to submit its findings to the council. A meeting will be held Thursday, March 18, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, and the following Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. at Amesbury Middle School library.
By the numbers
5th - Amesbury's tax rate is the 5th highest in the state
18% - Amesbury spends 18% more on local government than the state average
58th - The average taxbill in Amesbury is ranked 58th highest among 315 communities