By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Mayor Thatcher Kezer and his challenger Ken Gray faced off before an audience of about 200 at the Amesbury High School auditorium during last night’s mayoral debate.
The debate was moderated by WTSN AM 1270 news director and morning show host Mike Pomp, and was sponsored by The Daily News, the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce and Amesbury High School.
The debate began with opening statements from each candidate, and proceeded with a series of 10 questions, including some submitted by the audience. At the end of the debate, the candidates had an opportunity to ask each other questions directly, and then rebut the other’s responses.
Gray, who has spent his whole career in the private sector as an engineer and technology executive, started by thanking everyone for coming and especially those who helped deliver him a victory in the Sept. 17 primary election. He said residents of all types came together to elect change while sending a clear message that contrary to what the mayor says, the tax rate is a serious problem that should be addressed.
“The choices before you are change the course, or stay the course,” Gray said.
Kezer, who is seeking his fifth term as mayor of Amesbury, began his remarks by reflecting on the challenges that the city has faced over the past eight years, starting with the Mother’s Day flood that threatened to wipe out the downtown early in his tenure through the severe economic recession.
He went on to say that Amesbury has met these challenges and come out stronger under his leadership, and if re-elected he will follow a three-point plan to keep Amesbury moving forward, those points being to drive down costs while providing excellent services, to invest in economic growth and then use economic growth to invest in the schools.
Throughout the debate, much was made of the two candidates’ divergent backgrounds, with Kezer emphasizing his credentials in the public sector while Gray focused on his experience in the private sector and how it can relate to the job of running a city.
While the candidates were diametrically opposed on many issues — most notably the issue of taxes — they did agree on some things. Both said that improving the schools would be a top priority, as would building the commercial/industrial tax base, and when asked about their position on the split tax rate, both said they are against it and would not reinstitute it if elected.
Where the candidates differed mostly on the commercial/industrial tax issue was in strategy and execution. Kezer said he plans to develop the tax base by developing the Lower Millyard and the so-called Golden Triangle — the undeveloped area between Elm Street and Interstates 95 and 495 — while Gray pointed out that the city has been trying to develop the Golden Triangle for decades without success.
“It’s never been realized, now we’re using the same strategy for the Lower Millyard,” Gray said. “If it’s not working, what are we doing wrong? Do we keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results?”
Midway through the debate, the candidates were asked what they consider to be the most pressing issue in town. Gray answered that the No. 1 issue he hears when he asks that same question to residents is taxes, while Kezer said that depending on whom he asks, he’ll hear taxes and that either the schools or roads aren’t good enough. So the most pressing issue for him is balancing everyone’s concerns, he said.
“What I’ve always had to do as mayor is balance those two challenges,” Kezer said. “Usually you can’t deliver everything they want, and as for controlling costs, you can’t always cut as much as they would like.”
Toward the end, the two candidates had an opportunity to ask each other two questions directly. Kezer took the opportunity to ask Gray how he would balance an increase in the housing base with the additional cost burdens that it would place on the city’s services, and then he followed that up by asking what he believes his credentials are to run Amesbury.
On the first question, Gray responded by clarifying that what he wants is increased demand for housing, and that he’d like to see more people pounding on the doors to get into Amesbury and fewer people trying to get out. On the second question, he emphasized that he is a problem solver and pointed out that there are plenty of qualified people in City Hall whom he could rely on.
He also took Kezer to task for implying that because he has no public sector experience, he can’t do the job.
“My first observation is that question is representative of the new bureaucrats who think they’re the only ones qualified to run a government, and I reject that notion,” Gray said, prompting applause from the audience.
Gray asked Kezer what metrics he was using when he sent out a recent mailer that claimed that Amesbury’s schools are the best in the region, despite the school’s MCAS and graduation rankings being the lowest. He then followed up by asking how he would fund the school system without cutting additional services or raising the tax rate absent new commercial growth.
Kezer explained that schools are assigned a ranking of Level 1, 2, 3 or 4, with Level 1 being the best, and at the time of his remarks, three of Amesbury’s four schools were Level 1 schools, with just the middle school scoring Level 2. That compared favorably to other schools in the region, and the school’s MCAS scores have seen great improvements too, he said.
As for the second question, Kezer said his plan is to continue fostering economic growth, but in the short term he is also working with the school administration to try to identify areas where savings can be achieved, thereby making the schools more cost-efficient and freeing up money for other important areas.