, Newburyport, MA

April 2, 2013

Do Amesbury voters care about property taxes?

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

I sat through an interesting Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night in Amesbury.

The first two hours or so were spent discussing whether the city should appropriate, out of free cash, $200K for various unbudgeted non-emergency projects. By the comments of several councilors, it was evident that they were fully aware that this is an election year.

Free cash — what a great label for politicians. Money for nothing and the votes for free.

Free cash is the amount of money left over at the end of the year. It represents the amount the city has over-taxed its citizens during the year. It’s ostensibly there for emergencies, but in reality, politicians like it because it’s a kitty they can tap into; sometimes it might even help secure a few undecided votes.

At one point, the inevitable argument regarding returning free cash to taxpayers arose.

One councilor quickly dismissed it by stating that it was irresponsible to use free cash to lower taxes. His basic argument was that if they gave it back in the form of lower taxes, it would create shortfalls in following years.

Of course, the councilor had no problem later voting to use that same free cash for unbudgeted non-emergency spending. We are somehow led to believe that spending it on things the mayor and council see as important is somehow different from returning it to the taxpayers.

I guess the city knows how to spend our money better than we do.

As I sat there, I couldn’t help but think that here they are, seriously discussing whether the city should spend an additional $200K, when the elephant in the room is the seemingly unavoidable FY14 tax rate increase.

Over the next three months, the city will develop its new budget. Everyone on the council is aware of this and most everyone on the council seemed to think that the schools will end up getting a $2 million or so increase over FY13. I thought that they certainly must also know that the city’s union employees will be getting 2 percent contractual increases next year. Why would they not be fearful of assessed property values declining yet again? Finally, haven’t we been told that we should expect the state to kick in less funding than last year? All of this points to higher property taxes next year, possibly significantly higher. Not just tax rates, but tax bills.

In spite of all this, the council had no trouble approving the entire $200K. The only thing that was even close was the 5-4 vote in favor of spending $30K to hire a consultant to help us brand the city. Donna McClure was the sole voice of sanity in voting against the spending.

It’s going to be an interesting budget season. I guess we’ll have to wait until this fall to see if Amesbury residents really care about our high property taxes, or if just a few squeaky wheels are making all the noise.

Ken Gray