By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — After experiencing yet another increase this past year, Amesbury has the fourth highest tax rate in the state, well outpacing the rates in surrounding communities.
According to the state Department of Revenue’s Property Tax Trend Report, Amesbury’s tax rate of $20.97 per thousand ranked No. 4 out of 340 communities statewide for which data is available. By comparison, no other community in the area placed in the top 100, and most were in the bottom half of the state.
The three communities with higher tax rates than Amesbury are Longmeadow, which has a single-tax rate of $23.15, Maynard, which has a residential tax rate of $22.29, and Bolton, which has a single tax rate of $21.20. Amherst is tied for fourth with Amesbury with a single-tax rate of $20.97 to round out the top five.
Locally, the community with the next highest tax after Amesbury is Merrimac, which ranks No. 150 in the state with a rate of $15.89. West Newbury is close behind at No. 154 with a rate of $15.80, and then there is a sizable dropoff before Rowley, which is next at No. 202 with a rate of $14.74.
Newburyport’s tax rate of $14.16 ranked No. 222 in the state, and Georgetown is right after at No. 225 with a rate of $14.05. The lowest rates belonged to Salisbury and Newbury, which came in at No. 282 and No. 291 with rates of $11.79 and $11.32 respectively.
The tax rate is a mathematical formula in which the total dollars raised and appropriated in taxes are divided by the city’s total property value in thousands. The resulting tax rate figure is then multiplied by the assessed value of a particular property in increments of $1,000, and that equals what each individual property owner pays in property taxes.
Amesbury’s stubbornly high tax rate has long been a point of contention within the city, and last year tensions boiled over after the rate increased by $1.11 from $19.13 in 2012 to $20.24 for 2013, which ranked as the seventh highest tax rate in the state at the time.
The increase prompted widespread acrimony across the city, and the tax rate proved to be the dominant political issue of the 2013 city election. Ultimately, public frustration with the rate helped propel Mayor Ken Gray to the city’s top elected office, edging out four-term incumbent Mayor Thatcher Kezer in a tightly contested race.
Gray, who has made reining in the city’s tax rate one of his top priorities as mayor, called Amesbury’s tax rate “outrageous” and pointed to the city’s falling property values as one of the main reasons for the latest jump.
“If you dig into the data, you’ll find that Amesbury was the only one of the five contiguous communities whose property values went down,” Gray said. “So even if all of the spending locally was the same, our rate would have gone up anyway because our values went down.”
Gray said increasing the city’s property values would be the most effective way to help bring down the tax rate, and despite the latest increase, there is reason for optimism that could finally happen in the near future.
Between 2012 and 2013, Amesbury lost $67 million in property values, heavily contributing to the sizable bump in the tax rate, but between this year and last year, the city lost only $15.9 million in value.
When the 2014 tax rate was announced in November, Kezer attributed the improved outlook to the strengthening of the housing market, and he said he expected the city should start to see its tax rate finally start to come down next year.
“This will be the last year of the rate going up because of the values, and the expectation is that next year the tax rate will go down because the values are rising so quickly,” Kezer said on Nov. 27, 2013. “That won’t be reflected for another year, because you have to use the prior year data.”