By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY – With less than two weeks to go before the preliminary election, Mayor Thatcher Kezer is now preparing to officially start his reelection campaign and turn his attention to the three challengers vying for his job.
Kezer officially kicks off his campaign for re-election next week in hopes of winning a fifth term as mayor of Amesbury, and in order to do so, he will have to fight off challenges from local technology executive Ken Gray, former selectmen Jim Thivierge and resident Jeffrey Hoover.
The four candidates will first square off in the Sept. 17 preliminary, and the top two vote getters will then advance to the citywide municipal elections on Nov. 5.
Kezer is planning a kick-off event at Crave Food and Wine Bar on Monday at 6:30 p.m. The mayor’s relatively late entry into the fray stands in stark contrast to the activity of his opponents. Thivierge has been criticizing Kezer’s management style and fiscal abilities in a variety of public forums since announcing his candidacy back in February. Signs promoting Gray have become a ubiquitous presence all over town.
Kezer’s campaign signs have been noticeably absent from Amesbury lawns, however that will change in the coming days as Kezer plans to begin distributing his own signs this week. His decision to hold off on campaigning until now was based on a desire to wait until residents were ready for the election themselves.
“Putting signs up in June is way too early,” Kezer said. “Now that folks are back from summer, school is back in session and Labor Day is over, now folks are going to focus on what’s going on, and that’s when you want to put the signs up.”
While Gray didn’t have an opinion on the late start of Kezer’s campaign and said the mayor was doing what he felt was best, he did counter by saying that getting out early allowed him the chance to meet with voters, and he found many of them to be very interested in what’s going on.
“For me, getting out earlier has given me a chance to meet people,” Gray said. “I’ve met hundreds of people and heard their concerns, and what I’ve learned is there are a lot of knowledgeable and engaged people in town who want to see the city moving in the right direction.”
The key for each of the four candidates will be demonstrating to the electorate that they are best equipped to lead Amesbury in the right direction going forward, and for Kezer, that means proving that the best course is to stay the course.
Kezer said the focus of his campaign would be on highlighting Amesbury’s recent successes, particularly in regards to economic development and cost control.
Specifically, he said that he’s proud of the savings generated by Amesbury’s successful regionalization of the health department, the trash/recycling program and the police dispatchers, which have combined to save the city over $400,000 in operational costs every year, he said.
“We’ve been very successful in finding innovative ways to do our business of providing municipal services,” he said. “In all those cases that I just ticked off, all three are improving those services while creating savings.”
To emphasize these and other campaign points, Kezer recently launched a new campaign website.
Kezer has faced the sharpest criticism over the city’s property taxes, and an oft-cited perception that the city’s taxes are too high and putting too great a burden on local residents. The most commonly cited figure is the city’s tax rate, which is currently the seventh highest in the state at $20.24 per thousand.
Kezer has repeatedly responded to these criticisms by arguing that the figure residents should be looking at is the tax bill, not the tax rate. His website reflects this philosophy, pointing out that Amesbury’s average tax bill equals the average for Essex County, that 40 percent of residents got a tax cut this past year, and that despite having a higher tax rate, Amesbury total property taxes are still $10 million less than Newburyport’s. The site makes no mention of the city’s tax rate.
By contrast, all three of Kezer’s opponents have made addressing the city’s tax rate a top priority, challenging the mayor’s assertion that the tax rate doesn’t matter.
“The vast majority of the people I’ve talked to in town think he’s wrong on that,” Gray said. “I’ve asked hundreds and hundreds of people, and whenever I ask what they think Amesbury’s biggest issue, taxes is the first thing that comes out of their mouth. The notion that only a few people in town care about taxes is very wrong.”