By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Expressing shock and disappointment over the latest round of property tax increases, members of the City Council gathered in a special meeting last night to discuss any possible way to offset the new tax rate, even if it meant resorting to drastic measures.
The council was unanimous in their disapproval of the tax rate, and the councilors were particularly incensed over the fact that the $1.11 increase over last year’s rate was more than five times the increase they were expecting.
Late last month, Mayor Thatcher Kezer informed the council that the tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year would be $20.24, up from last year’s rate of $19.13. The councilors noted that when they approved a budget increase back in June, their expectation was that tax rates would go up by 21 cents as a result. What they did not anticipate, they said, was a citywide decline in property values by $67 million.
“The rate is a mathematic equation,” said Councilor Bob Lavoie. “It’s like a see-saw: If the values go down, the rate can’t do anything but go up.”
The plan favored by the City Council would be to commit a portion of the city’s “free cash” funds to the city’s budget, driving down the tax rate to $19.99, but the problem is the only person who has the power to use the free cash funds in that way is Kezer, who is opposed to the idea.
Even if he were to have a change of heart, there wouldn’t be enough time to make the state deadline, council president Anne Ferguson said.
“The council itself is not able to say ‘let’s take this money and spend it,’” Ferguson said. “The mayor has to send a request to us, and by law we have to have two meetings of that request, and the second meeting has to be public. The public hearing requires at least seven days notice in the newspaper, and we can’t get that to happen.”
Ferguson added that the deadline for the council to vote on the classification hearing is Dec. 17 in order for it to be sent to the state by Dec. 20.
“It ain’t happening this year,” Lavoie said.
Not all of the councilors agreed with that assessment, however, nor did most of the residents in attendance. Jim Thivierge of Friend Street pointed out that the city could send out estimated tax bills if the council decided not to vote on the tax classification hearing, and former Selectman Claude Gonthier asked how much it would really cost the city if they did so.
Councilor Donna McClure suggested the council take those suggestions seriously and look into it.
“I think we can do something, I think it’s a matter of if this council has a little bit of intestinal fortitude,” McClure said. “We can table the classification meeting until the mayor speaks to a few more people.”
“I’m asking the council to think about it tonight, think about how much it will cost us if the tax bills don’t go out and we have to borrow,” she added.
Nobody on hand could say exactly what would happen if Amesbury were to table the tax classification hearing and end up sending out estimated tax bills, if that were even allowed as Thivierge suggested. The councilors indicated they would be seeking answers from the mayor today and would be willing to table the hearing if there was any possibility that doing so could ultimately prompt the mayor into using free cash to lower the tax rate. Amesbury has about $1.2 million in free cash, which is money left over from the fiscal year that ended June 30.
In response to Kezer’s stance that using free cash funds would be fiscally irresponsible and that the tax bill is the figure that really matters, Councilor Derek Kimball said that the high tax rate lends itself to a problem of perception.
“Everybody that I spoke to talks about the rate, and you try to explain that whole equation thing, but (the rate) is all they hear, they don’t want to put two and two together,” Kimball said. “The mayor talks about branding; we’ve already been branded, negatively, for having the highest tax rate, or the (fifth) highest.”
The councilors were in agreement that using free cash to give back to the community was something the city could afford and was the right thing to do. Councilor Jim Kelcourse even went as far as to say that the mayor needed to step up and support the taxpayers, and that if he wasn’t willing to do so, “then maybe we should find someone who will.”
One thing the councilors indicated they would not do is vote to implement a split tax rate and place a greater burden on the city’s businesses.
The tax discussion will continue tonight at the regularly scheduled tax classification hearing, which will be on the council’s agenda when they meet tonight in the City Hall Auditorium at 7.