Amesbury taxpayers are sick to death of being labeled as having unusually high property taxes. Now they are poised to have another dubious honor — one of the highest, if not the highest, residential property tax rate in the entire state.
This is a situation that for too long has cried out for a better response than has been provided thus far by the City Council and mayor. Both have to work harder at giving Amesbury taxpayers relief and set the town on a course toward a more palatable tax rate and tax bill.
The short-term fix is to take some of the $1 million-plus in “free cash” that the town has amassed and use it to offset tax increases. That’s what Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday is doing in her city; Amesbury officials should look to her example of how it can, and should, be done.
“Free cash” is municipal jargon for unspent tax money. It’s the money left over from the past fiscal year, which ended in July. This is the easiest and best source of money to use for tax relief.
Next, Amesbury has to spend more wisely. A report issued a few years ago by an appointed commission noted the town spends far more on municipal services than towns of similar size. The report was largely dismissed by elected officials with the argument that Amesbury has unique qualities that don’t make it an apples-to-apples comparison.
Truth is, Amesbury isn’t different in the areas that matter. It competes for economic development, for jobs, for quality of life and for public perceptions that are critical to its desirability, and thus to its property values. The widespread perception that Amesbury is a place with high taxes hurts property values.
It’s in the hands of the city’s elected officials to turn that perception around, and they have to do that by putting a finer point on how the town spends its money. That’s the responsibility of the mayor, School Committee and City Council. And citizens need to do their part by showing up at meetings, sending emails to their elected officials and communicating the importance of holding spending down.
Over the years on this page we’ve spelled out the arguments why the property taxes that residents must pay are out of sync with the reality of their ability to pay. Amesbury has a relatively low per capita income, a high percentage of “underwater” mortgages, and one of the highest rates of mortgage foreclosures in the area. Translation — taxpayers don’t have the economic wherewithal to afford what they are being charged. They are paying white-collar taxes in a blue-collar town.
Of the three mayors Amesbury has had since it turned to a city form of government, Mayor Thatcher Kezer has the best track record in terms of tamping down annual tax increases. But it’s not enough, as the potential headline of “highest tax rate in the state” demonstrates.
The City Council and mayor need to take tougher steps to get this spending problem under control. We hope to see them start on this initiative by taking some “free cash” and giving it back to the people who paid it.