, Newburyport, MA

June 11, 2013

Our view: Amesbury should reject fat pay raises for mayor, council

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s hard to believe that at a time like this — when the city’s property values continue to slump, property taxes keep rising and the property tax rate continues to get the dubious honor of being among the top 10 in the entire state — that a proposal is on the table to give both the Amesbury mayor and Amesbury City Council substantial raises.

Last week, outgoing City Council President Ann Ferguson proposed increasing councilors’ annual stipend to $7,500 from their present $3,000. The mayor would get a $17,000 raise, on top of the $20,000 raise that was granted a couple years ago. Overall, the councilors would be getting 150 percent raises and the mayor a 21 percent raise, starting next year.

Not surprisingly, the news set off a considerable amount of outcry from residents. The council is set to make a decision on this soon.

These fat raises should be jettisoned pronto so that the council and mayor can focus on the priority — setting a spending plan that gets Amesbury off the property tax cliff. Giving themselves raises would be a slap in the face to residents who want to see the council stretch the available tax dollars.

Again, it comes back to the same old problem for Amesbury. The property taxes that residents must pay are way out of whack with the public’s ability to afford. Yet department head salaries negotiated by the mayor are lucrative, and meager requests are rejected to use some of the city’s excess tax revenue to drop the tax rate slightly. There’s been plenty of grumbling around town over the tax rate, as well as the police chief’s $160,000 annual salary and other handsome salaries right on down the line.

When justifying these salaries, Amesbury officials occasionally compare Amesbury to Newburyport, as they are neighboring cities with similar populations. However, the statistics that give insight into the average person’s wealth — and ability to pay — are never emphasized.

Those figures show some startling contrasts. The value of Amesbury’s assessed property is a little less than $2 billion; Newburyport’s is about $3.6 billion. The personal savings of Amesbury residents is a little less than $300 million, according to the Federal Reserve. In Newburyport, the figure is about $1.1 billion. Economically, they are worlds apart. Yet Amesbury’s government spends on par with Newburyport.

It’s pretty cut and dry. The citizens of Amesbury don’t have the financial wherewithal to keep pace. They need their money to be more carefully spent from the top on down — but especially at the top.

Amesbury needs to focus on getting its property taxes in line. Right now, the average single-family home property tax is nearly $6,000 (that’s about $150 more than Newburyport, where home values are about $140,000 higher). When potential homebuyers look at the mortgage bill and property tax bill combined that they must pay in Amesbury, they too often vote with their feet and look elsewhere. Getting the high-tax-bill albatross off homeowners’ backs would do wonders for Amesbury’s home values, and by default, its sky-high tax rate.

This year may be a pivotal one politically in Amesbury. There have been more candidates stepping forward to run for public office than in any recent year. People want to see change. That’s a positive for Amesbury. It needs to focus on its tax problem, and perhaps the pressures of an election year will get things moving in the right direction.