NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 17, 2013

Mayor plans study on spending to counter 'flawed' report's conclusions

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY – In response to questions about whether or not the city overspends on its operations, the mayor’s office will be commissioning a study to determine how Amesbury stacks up compared to other similar communities in the state.

Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he would like to have the report finished in advance of this summer’s annual budget discussions, and that it would serve as an updated and more accurate version of the Ad Hoc Citizen Advisory Committee report from 2010, which he called deeply flawed.

“It keeps coming up from time to time, and I know some people say our spending is out of control and then they use that as their example,” Kezer said. “But that’s flawed and our spending is not out of control.”

Jonathan Sherwood, the Ad Hoc committee’s chairperson, said he disagreed with Kezer’s assessment that the report was flawed but noted that the report “was what it was,” which was a group of volunteers coming together to take a closer look at Amesbury’s finances in a short window of time and not a scientific and exhaustive study of the city’s budget.

“We weren’t there to go to that degree, we did the best we could to pull in what struck us at relative data to figure out where we are compared to other communities,” Sherwood said. “I don’t think it was a bad effort, it was short and it was an unscientific group of people.”

The Ad Hoc Citizen Advisory Committee was set up in 2010 by the City Council with the goal of looking into Amesbury’s operating expenses and determining whether or not the city was overspending compared to 12 other communities of similar size.

The nine-member group conducted a five-week investigation and ultimately concluded that the city was spending 18 percent more than the other communities on average. The committee recommended that spending in the fire, police and public works departments in particular should be reduced to bring them more in line with other communities of similar size.

Kezer said that despite public perception, he did not commission the report, and added that he had never even gotten the chance to read the final report either.

“We got a summary sheet with all the results of how much we’re overspending on this and how much we’re overspending on that, but I’ve never seen the actual report,” Kezer said. “Nobody sent me a copy.”

Kezer didn’t mince words when he expressed his opinion of the Ad Hoc committee’s report. Beyond simply calling it flawed, Kezer went as far as to say the committee purposely included members who’s goal was to make the report look as bad as possible in order to generate political pressure to cut spending.

The way they did that, he said, was to take 12 communities that had similar populations as Amesbury, but nothing else in common, and made apples to orange comparisons using their average costs and Amesbury’s costs.

“They were actually going to use more communities, but when they had those other communities in there our numbers looked better so they shrunk the pool,” Kezer said. “That’s one of the things I know from some of the people on it.”

Kezer was particularly critical of the report’s conclusion regarding the fire department, which said that Amesbury spent significantly more on its fire department than the other communities looked at.

“What they did was look at the total spending of each department, add it all up and found an average. Then they took Amesbury’s total spending and looked at the two to compare,” Kezer said. “Well one of the 12 communities had a fire district, which means its not part of their tax bill to pay for their fire service, it’s a separate bill. So that community, I think it was South Hadley, had a $0 for their fire budget, so what it did was pull down the comparison group’s average because their budget was zero.”

Kezer added that Amesbury’s fire department is also the only one of the group that has a significant ambulance service, which he said makes up 64 percent of the department’s calls and brings in over $800,000 in revenue to the town annually. That revenue wasn’t taken into consideration by the report either, he said.

Sherwood said that he thinks the city producing a new report would be a good thing, and also noted that he didn’t come to the conclusion that the city was overspending in the Ad Hoc report, though he was in the minority on that view.

Given the wide perception that Amesbury spends too much on its operations, Kezer said he hopes producing a more complete report will help the city better diagnose potential areas of improvement without resorting to cuts that he feels would do more harm than good.

“It will be a much more accurate, apples to apples comparison,” Kezer said.