By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — With budget season on the horizon, residents fed up with Amesbury’s tax situation gathered before the City Council to present a report they hope will help councilors identify and address budgetary problems that could help reduce the city’s tax rate.
During public comment at Tuesday night’s meeting, Jane Snow of 44 Fern Ave. gave each councilor a packet containing spreadsheets detailing the city’s costs and salaries dating back to fiscal year 2005, along with detailed budget comparisons between Amesbury and other Essex County communities.
Snow said the goal was to make sure the councilors had all the information going into budget season so nothing would be overlooked.
“I don’t want to hear, `We didn’t know,’” Snow said.
One of the criticisms frequently levied at Mayor Thatcher Kezer and the City Council has been their inability to keep costs, particularly salaries, under control. The report is wide-ranging in its analysis, but one of the more pointed sections is the breakdown of city employees earning more than $80,000.
In 2005-06, the report shows there were 28 employees earning more than $80,000, while in 2011-12, that number had increased to 80. Most of that growth occurred on the city side of the budget, where the number of highly paid employes jumped from 20 to 51 in a span of six years. On the school side, there was an increase of eight employees to 29.
The report also compared Amesbury’s budgets to five other similarly sized Essex County communities: Newburyport, Salisbury, Ipswich, Lynnfield and Swampscott.
In general, Amesbury’s budgets tended to be either in line or slightly more than the other communities. One of the key takeaways of this section was that despite having the lowest average single-family home value ($295,642) of the six communities, Amesbury had the third highest average single-family tax bill ($5,984).
The two communities that had higher average bills were Lynnfield ($7,573) and Swampscott ($8,541), where the average single-family home values are more than $150,000 greater than in Amesbury. The other three communities all had lower average single-family tax bills despite having higher single-family home values.
Home values play a significant part in both the tax rate and tax bill formula, and generally speaking, higher home values tend to lead to higher tax bills. Amesbury’s tax rate of $20.24 is the seventh highest in the state and the highest in Essex County, a major point of contention among residents who believe Amesbury is spending more than it can afford.
City Council roundup
The City Council cleared a key step toward the future development of the Golden Triangle area between Interstates 95 and 495 and Elm Street when it voted to approve a zoning amendment that will allow the Amesbury Animal Hospital to build a new facility at 277 Elm St.
The Golden Triangle is a large parcel of land that city officials have long hoped would attract businesses to Amesbury and generate substantial tax revenue for the city. It was zoned as an office park and originally was restricted to high-tech firms, but despite the prime location, no businesses ever came.
The city has relaxed the restrictions over the years. By now allowing veterinary hospitals, Amesbury Animal Hospital will become the first business to plant its roots in the 50-acre area. Officials hope the business will be the first of many to be drawn there.
Amesbury Animal Hospital, currently located at 230 Main St., already has a purchase and sales agreement in place for the Elm Street site. It intends to build a bigger, more modern facility with better examination rooms and surgical suites.
The council also voted unanimously in favor of rezoning the old Horace Mann School property on Congress Street from an open space conservancy to an R-8 residential zone, which will bring it in line with the surrounding neighborhood and allow it to be redeveloped.
Kezer said he hopes the existing school building can be saved for historical reasons, but if it’s not suitable for development, then it may need to be torn down and the land subdivided and sold off as multiple single-family lots.
Regardless, Kezer was emphatic about the need to sell the property quickly so the city wouldn’t have to spend any more than the minimum amount of money needed to keep it from falling apart.
“Time is of the essence,” Kezer said. “We need to get this off us quickly.”
After some discussion, the council also voted 8-1 in favor of authorizing a $165,000 transfer of funds from the city’s Ambulance Receipts account to pay for a new ambulance chassis. Councilor Donna McClure cast the only no vote.
The quickest vote of the night came when the council gave its seal of approval to a measure that will delete the word “Town” from the official city seal and replace it with the word “City.”