By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Dissatisfied with the city’s direction over the past few years, local technology executive Ken Gray announced yesterday that he will be challenging Mayor Thatcher Kezer in this fall’s mayoral election.
Gray, 63, of 60 Merrimac St., Unit 912, has lived in Amesbury for the last three years, and before that he lived in West Newbury for 13 years and Andover for 21 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Northeastern University in 1973 and since then has spent his entire career working in the semiconductor industry.
He works at Northwave Technology, Inc. in Haverhill, which he started in 2001. The company manufactures a machine that aids in the production processes of some of the world’s biggest technology firms, including Intel, Texas Instruments and IBM.
“I’m pretty well rounded. I’ve run everything from operations to finance to engineering to sales and marketing,” Gray said. “I’ve run the whole company, so I have a good understanding of management, leadership and those kinds of skills.”
Gray joins a field of candidates that also includes Jim Thivierge, who has run several times for mayor. Kezer has not yet officially announced, but he has indicated he will run for his fifth two-year term.
Gray has never run for or held public office, and he said he has no political ambitions beyond being the mayor of Amesbury. The reason he wants to run is because he believes there are a lot of problems that the current administration is unwilling to face, and he thinks he can make a difference.
“My training as an engineer almost inevitably leads me to identifying problems and coming up with solutions,” Gray said. “That’s the world I live in, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career.”
Primarily, Gray said the issue of taxes is threatening to tear the community apart, and he said Kezer’s unwillingness to admit that tax rates are a problem is only making things worse. He said the cycle of high tax rates producing lower property values is unsustainable, and if elected he will make addressing that a focus of his administration.
Specifically, he said he believes there should be more focus on residential growth, rather than purely on commercial growth through projects like the Lower Millyard and the Golden Triangle.
“I think we need to expand the focus to residential growth. I think it’s the only path I think that’s open to us,” Gray said. “I want people to want to live here in Amesbury, and I want people pounding on the door to get in, rather than desperate to leave.”
Gray said that bending the tax rate curve down would be a major point of emphasis for him in order to signal to people inside and outside of Amesbury that the city is serious about fixing its tax problems. He added that the city could have done that in the winter by using “free cash” — a municipal term for unspent tax money — to drive down the city’s tax rate below $20 per $1,000 valuation. Kezer rejected a request by the City Council to use free cash to lower the tax rate.
“We had an opportunity last year to bend that curve with free cash, and I think the mayor made a huge mistake. I mean I wouldn’t be running if he’d bent that curve,” Gray said. “If we could have leveled it off under $20, that would’ve been a good start.”
Besides taxes, Gray said the other main issues he would focus on are spending, education and what he called “fatigue.”
With spending, Gray said he doesn’t think reducing spending citywide is a realistic option, but there should be more accountability when money is spent. For instance, he said if the School Committee asked for a $1.8 million increase, he’s fine with giving them the money as long as there are specific performance metrics in place that the schools will strive to achieve using that money.
That would also be an effective way to help improve the quality of Amesbury’s schools as a whole, which he said is a priority.
“I think our goal should be to be the best in this part of the state, certainly on par with Newburyport,” Gray said. “When people refer to the Amesbury school system, they should say Amesbury has excellent schools, and I think that’s the operative word.”
By improving the schools, growing the residential base and resolving the tax issue, Gray said he hopes to be able to build a renewed sense of buzz that he feels the city is lacking.
“I want to get back to what I heard six or seven years ago — that Amesbury is an up and coming town. You don’t hear that as much anymore and I want to get that back,” Gray said. “I think if we can accomplish those things, we can make it a place people will want to raise their children, live for a long time and retire.”