, Newburyport, MA


December 19, 2012

In Amesbury, a ‘branding’ moment missed

The recent furor over Amesbury’s tax rate demonstrates that Mayor Thatcher Kezer missed a golden opportunity to follow through with something he says he wants to do — “brand” the town in a positive way.

“Branding,” when done correctly, emphasizes the existing positives. Just as importantly, it recognizes the negatives, and at the very least neutralizes them, or better yet, turns them into a positive.

One of the best examples of successful branding is the Domino’s Pizza advertisements, in which Domino’s President Patrick Doyle admits to the lousy “cardboard” pizzas his company has been making, and promises to do better. It was a risky campaign, but it has been wildly successful. In advertising circles, it is seen by critics as a stroke of genius. The company has been rewarded with double-digit increases in sales. Its stock price has doubled.

Why the success? People like being listened to; they like accountability.

In Amesbury, the “branding” problem is property taxes, and more specifically, the tax rate. Because home values are relatively low and tax bills are among the highest in the region, the tax rate sticks out like a sore thumb. Over the years, Amesbury’s high property taxes have been a nagging problem, as any real estate agent will tell you. It can make the difference between a sale and a buyer looking elsewhere.

Last week, Kezer set the tax rate at $20.24 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, far higher than he predicted it would be in June. The increase was due largely to slumping property values.

Amesbury is one of only a handful of towns in the state where residents pay a tax rate that is more than $20 per $1,000 of assessed value. It has consistently ranked in the state’s upper tier in this category, but crossing the $20 threshold became a red flag. So much so, the majority of the City Council took the highly unusual step of asking Kezer to tap into the town’s $1.2 million surplus in order to put the rate at $19.99. They held a special meeting to emphasize their point, then made their point again at a meeting the following night. Councilors such as Jim Kelcourse and Joe McMilleon made salient points, and there was a healthy turnout by residents who agreed with the council.

This was a Patrick Doyle moment, the opportunity to do some attention-grabbing branding. But Kezer rejected their arguments, citing various municipal financial reasons. Cardboard pizza for everyone.  

What seems to be lost on Kezer is the importance of listening to critics and really understanding their concern. It’s a “branding” issue that won’t go away, no matter how many times he claims it’s unimportant and overhyped, nor how much he blames it on what went on in the past.

The councilors get it — Amesbury’s high tax rate creates an image problem for the town that directly impacts home values. The high tax rate makes the town less desirable to buyers. It’s harder to sell homes, as the dozens of unsold listings on real estate websites will attest to. And so, prices go down.

Amesbury leads the local area in negative home sale market indicators, such as subprime loans, foreclosures and real estate market health as measured by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Homeowners need city government’s help in turning things around.

The simple truth is that for most homeowners, their home is likely their biggest retirement asset. Most workers these days don’t have pensions; they have whatever they can squirrel into their 401(k) accounts. They have a Social Security system that will likely face steep benefit cuts as our government struggles to get a handle on entitlement spending. And they have the hope that their home’s value will rise enough over the years to create a solid nest egg.

This is an issue where “branding” and citizens’ needs fit neatly together. Instead, cardboard pizza won the day.


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