At the risk of beating a dead horse, we will repeat a statement we made a couple months ago — it was a mistake for Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer to ignore the City Council’s request to give property taxpayers some relief by tapping some of the $1-million-plus in extra tax money that the town had accumulated last year.
The town’s high tax rate continues to be a real issue for homeowners, one that needs to be addressed. This was an opportunity to reduce the tax rate below the attention-grabbing $20-per-$1,000 valuation threshold. It was an opportunity to take action on behalf of the many residents in town who feel they are stretched thin by property taxes.
Now, as the mayor proposes a number of spending proposals to the council, another opportunity has come to again get some traction on the issue of Amesbury’s spending and taxes.
Foremost is the plan for redeveloping the Lower Millyard. The council has already agreed to spend over $5 million to relocate the Department of Public Works out of that location. It’s a significant expense for taxpayers, but one that most people in town seem to agree is needed. The next stage will be the creation of a town park in that area, and a variety of infrastructure changes that will make the area more attractive and developable for abutting landowners. The mayor is asking for money to get the park plan moving.
The council should be looking for ways to minimize these expenses, and to show residents that their tax dollars are not being spent to benefit a relative few developers. There are other ways to raise this money. For instance, the state offers an option called District Improvement Financing, which allows a community to borrow money specifically for a project, and collect taxes from developers to repay the public cost. It’s a relatively new concept to Massachusetts, but it has been put to good use in various communities throughout the nation.
Another spending proposal by the mayor that is perplexing is a $30,000 plan to hire a consultant to draw up a “branding” plan for Amesbury. It is ironic to spend money on something like this when a large part of the branding problem is high taxes.
Amesbury has a thriving artistic community, a large collection of museums and historic sites, hundreds of acres of recreation land, great trails, scenic vistas, attractions like Cider Hill Farm, and a nice downtown. Surely there are people in Amesbury who would be happy to come up with a branding plan — for free — that would better reflect what Amesbury is all about.
Any attempt to brand Amesbury has to deal with the powerful perception that its tax rate is among the highest in the state, and that its property tax bills are high given the value of homes and median income of homeowners. That piece of the branding message has to come from City Hall.
The emphasis should be on tamping down spending, which will help drop the tax rate and make Amesbury a more attractive real estate market and a less expensive place to live. While we feel that the mayor is taking the right course by pursuing economic development in the Lower Millyard project, it must be done in sync with a strategy to lower property taxes through spending reductions and tapping excess town funds.