AMESBURY — Four candidates for mayor will be on the ballot in the preliminary election Tuesday.
Mayor Ken Gray is running for his fourth, two-year term in office and will face Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kassandra Gove, former Planning Board member Ted Semesnyei and former Selectman James Thivierge.
Voting in the preliminary election take places at Amesbury High School, 5 Highland St., from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Daily News asked each candidate five questions about property taxes, the new elementary school project, the Maples Crossing winter sports complex, retail marijuana sales and manufacturing. Biographical information and their answers to three questions appear below.
Kassandra Gove, 34, 9 Gardner St.
Current employment: Amesbury Chamber of Commerce, Stone Ridge Properties
Education: B.A., M.Ed. in higher education administration
Why are you running? "Amesbury has been the “hidden gem” of the North Shore, and now we’re at a turning point where new developments are going to change that. It’s an exciting time and we need a mayor who truly understands this city, who can balance future developments while honoring our historic and industrial past. I know Amesbury. I grew up here, I’m a graduate of our public schools and I’ve worked for and with our businesses. I’m running for mayor because I work hard every single day to make Amesbury a special place to live, work and play, and I feel that I can do even more for this community. I am focused on a student-centered education, thoughtful economic development, prioritizing communication and transparency, and investing in infrastructure."
Are Amesbury's property taxes too high? If you think they are, what would you do to lower property tax bills? "As a community, we have a responsibility to provide certain services and amenities. Local governments raise money through taxes to provide these public services. While our tax rate has decreased over recent years, so has the quality of the services we provide. Either our taxes are too high and the money, management and planning are ineffective; or, our taxes are too low to cover the services our community commands. At every turn, you will find incomplete projects, unmaintained buildings and spaces, and understaffed departments. This leads to the dismantling of a community and needs to be addressed with technology, accessibility, planning and strong leadership."
Is a new Amesbury Elementary School needed? How would you respond to people who say it is too much of a burden on taxpayers? "There is no doubt the physical plant at Amesbury Elementary School is failing and we need a new facility, and yes, taxpayers should be concerned with how their money is being spent. If you are confident the plan presented is the best option and meets the needs of our elementary school population, vote yes. It’s critical that regardless of the results, the administration is prepared to take the next step. If it’s approved, make sure that all issues at the new school site are addressed. If it’s rejected, quickly assemble city and school officials to map out what’s next. As mayor, I will be committed to doing that."
What role should the city play in the development and promotion of Maples Crossing? "The city should work within its purview to assist in the project management and implementation of Maples Crossing through the council, staff, boards, commissions and committees. This development is unlike any other in Amesbury’s history and special attention should be given to the impact it will have on the community and the neighborhood it will reside in. Amesbury will become known as 'Home of Maples Crossing' and it’s important to include that in our story and marketing, as well as support local business organizations and townwide tourism programs."
Ken Gray, 69, 9 Riverview Heights
Current employment: Mayor, City of Amesbury
Education: B.S. in industrial engineering, Northeastern University
Why are you running? "I’m running to continue leading us forward, in our current direction and to complete what we’ve started. I want to continue to help make Amesbury a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. I pledged six years ago to get our property taxes under control, to strive for excellence in our schools and improve our quality of life and I am proud to say that we have made real, significant and measurable progress on all fronts. Together, we’re successfully accomplishing what I then knew we could. After many years of heading in the wrong direction, we have finally succeeded in getting on the right track. The next few years will be about finishing projects that are planned and underway so we can fully realize the benefits of the economic development, educational, and quality of life initiatives that we have implemented over the past six years."
Are Amesbury's property taxes too high? If you think they are, what would you do to lower property tax bills? "Yes, they remain too high, but they have improved in every one of the six budgets I have submitted since first taking office in 2014. At that time, we had the fourth-highest property tax rate of the 351 cities and towns in the state, and it was rising. This was unacceptable. We immediately reversed the trend and we are now at 62nd and still improving. Additionally, we have done an excellent job when compared to other cities and towns in controlling our tax bills. In fact, bills have increased the second to the least of the 34 communities in Essex County. Control has been accomplished through diligent fiscal management and our successful economic development initiatives. The challenge going forward will be to remain on our current successful track. Therefore, it is critical that our mayor have strong budgeting and financial skills and a record of fostering successful economic development."
Is a new Amesbury Elementary School needed? How would you respond to people who say it is too much of a burden on taxpayers? "Yes, the school is needed and the time is now. Parents, educators, and school officials agree that the current AES no longer serves the needs of our children. We are currently in year four of a highly transparent seven-year process in which our School Committee, School Building Committee, City Council and the Massachusetts School Building Authority have all voted to approve the current project. While the new AES project represents one of the largest financial commitments in the city’s history, it also represents one of our greatest opportunities. A 'no' vote will send us back to the beginning of the process, with no assurance that MSBA will let us back in, meaning that it could cost significantly more in the future. Therefore, please vote 'yes' to our new elementary school on Oct. 8. For FAQs and additional reasons why we should support this important project, please visit www.YEStoAES.com."
What role should the city play in the development and promotion of Maples Crossing? "The city should and does play an important role in the development and promotion of Maples Crossing. In fact, the developers have unequivocally stated that, had I and other community leaders not supported and embraced the project, they would have looked elsewhere. We’ve worked in close cooperation with the developers to provide incentives, such as our TIF program, to mitigate site constraints. We’ve worked with the state, receiving grants through MassWorks to provide financial assistance for traffic and intersection work, and we’ve helped the developer navigate our local and state regulatory processes. Maples Crossing will not only bring Amesbury millions in new revenue, it will bring in hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and greatly enhance the quality of life in our community. The Maples Crossing folks are also directly doing their part to help our community by pledging to purchase the products and services they need from local businesses."
Ted Semesnyei, 44, 265 Lions Mouth Road.
Current employment: IHS Markit, global information provider
Education: Undergraduate: The State University of New York at Fredonia, major in economics, with minors in political science and GIS mapping. Graduate: University of Maryland, School of Public Policy, graduate degree in public management, with a concentration in economic development.
Why are you running? “My campaign has been as grassroots as you can possibly get in order to truly tap into the pulse of Amesbury. We all want a government that is honestly looking out for the best interests of all residents and businesses, no matter the size. I can work with anyone and fully seek to understand all points of view before openly communicating exactly how I feel about any issue. Via this election season, Amesbury can’t hide anymore from the obvious discord that is hurting our progress. I have no strings attached to any special interest groups and have the strongest background of education, employment and local experience to push Amesbury into a more positive position. I am the only candidate for mayor that can truly unify the community and develop a shared vision we desperately need. Otherwise, we are in real danger of slipping into an even further degree of discord.”
Are Amesbury's property taxes too high? If you think they are, what would you do to lower property tax bills? “Yes. We have been told for years that economic development would ease the tax burden on residents. Despite a strong economy, the residential tax share has been increasing. There are many ways to spin tax data, but this is a bottom-line stat. Once again, the residential share of the tax load in Amesbury has increased the past six years. One out of every three communities in Massachusetts has a split tax rate and is a trend that is growing, including many towns with thriving business communities. Residents are the backbone of Amesbury and a split is the best way for homeowners to handle extra burdens, such as bonds to pay for school and infrastructure upgrades. I would lobby for a split, but obviously would need buy in, starting with the City Council. Hopefully, we’ll finally have a real debate forum because there is not enough space here to fully vet taxes.”
Is a new Amesbury Elementary School needed? How would you respond to people who say it is too much of a burden on taxpayers? “The condition of Amesbury Elementary absolutely must be addressed. However, the current plan is not the way to go for several reasons. Don’t be bullied into the ridiculous idea that you are somehow against children and education by voting no on Oct. 8. The fault lies with the core that rammed this plan through without first receiving clear grassroots support and fully explaining all the costs and spillover ramifications. The private sector would never sign off on such an impactful project without having all basic questions addressed. Our community has now been put in a very difficult situation. Not only are taxes at play, but also long-standing issues such as the character of the Woodsom Farm neighborhood. Don’t forget about the loss of arguably our greatest youth sport asset, which are the baseball fields that involved a tremendous amount of resident volunteer work.”
What role should the city play in the development and promotion of Maples Crossing? “The city should do everything in its power to help make the development as successful as possible for Maples Crossing. However, this is the attitude our city should have with any new or existing business, no matter how big or small. Every ‘customer’ for the city should be treated fairly and with respect. It is important to note that there were many individuals and entities in our community responsible for helping get Maples Crossing to this point. Too often, volunteers are taken for granted and never receive their fair share of recognition. Regarding promotion, Maples Crossing is obviously a large outfit that will be able to do much of their own marketing. The job of the city and mayor is to best integrate, manage, and balance the promotion and power of Maples Crossing with the business community as a whole. In other words, integrate Maples Crossing into an ongoing, comprehensive and unified citywide business promotion strategy.”
James N. Thivierge, 73, 8 School St.
Education: Masters degree, public administration, Framingham State University; Merrimack College, B.A. American studies
Why are you running? "(As a) U.S. Navy veteran with an honorable discharge, I entered graduate school to study for city and town managers positions. For work, I was senior programmer and union steward for the department of corporations and taxation, programs and analysis where I did corporations and fuels plus the 'Sudbury decision' from the Supreme Judicial Court with the commissioner’s legal counsel. Joined the division of banks and loan agencies as a data processing manager with many responsibilities such as the call reports of all state charters banks like commercial. Saving, cooperative credit unions and trust ,CRA, property tax escrow, credit cards etc, a management position. At banking, I took many almost 70 related courses. At the same time, ran for Town Meeting member for 23 years, served as the Finance Committee chair for three of seven years, served on the bylaw committee nine years, and was a member of the Board of Selectmen for five three-year terms. I was president of the Essex County selectmen, and a nine-year member of the county advisory committee serving a committee chairman overseeing the registries and court buildings. I did 20 years of cable contracts. To bring my education and practical experience in the public sector as mayor of Amesbury, a lifelong resident!"
Are Amesbury's property taxes too high? If you think they are, what would you do to lower property tax bills? "Yes, Amesbury taxes are the highest in the county! Compute the average, say on an assessed value of $400,000 against tax rates in the county it will be the highest! The tax bills increase every year of (Mayor Ken Gray's) term, five of five, thus far. Poor budgeting techniques of the sponsors plan generating millions in free cash has added monies to appropriations driving up the net appropriations and raising tax bills unnecessarily to taxpayers, and with foreclosures, evictions, homeless, the need for affordable housing caused by consistent high taxes all hidden to the local taxpayers in the state budget. Massachusetts has the highest median housing cost and the highest rents in the nation, exacerbated by the Heights rent encourage rent increase at least hundred higher over the last four years. Better budgeting, enterprising whenever you can is a great state. Having someone who has a degree in area will help greatly."
Is a new Amesbury Elementary School needed? How would you respond to people who say it is too much of a burden on taxpayers? "After over 50 years, I say looking at the currently facility I say yea but whether we can afford it I cannot right now. The School Committee at the beginning used a survey method when it came to the South Hampton road location they chucked it under the table. Foreclose and homelessness, we have had five rate tax bills in a row, rent have gone up because the The Heights' influence, who knows what will happen with trade tariffs taxes, based on my limited experience it appears that at the proposed new tax rate unannounced, a tax base from 2.4 to 2.43 billed at $400,000 plus $370, it can cost a household from $7,538 to $7,627, I think its too much to spend and begin to look alternate plans like the South Hampton school area. Gentrification is this mayor’s middle name, anyone from town may be looking at moving or being foreclosed and homelessness."
What role should the city play in the development and promotion of Maples Crossing? "I am a hockey fan, I grew up playing on the park pond and I knew a lot of the old-timers like Alphonse Picard, Freddie, Michaud, and of course, Leo Dupere, plus my college was Division II hockey champs two years in the row. My concern is the $70 million in time will be $30 million less value like The Heights, baseball fields taking $25 million off their value for TIF/DIF the stiff from $54 mil to $29.5 million."
In addition to the information which appeared in Monday's Daily News, the four candidates for Amesbury Mayor, Ken Gray, Kassandra Gove, Ted Semesnyei and James Thivierge were asked two additional questions questions. The following are their responses.
What role should the mayor play in bringing larger employers into the city, including manufacturers?
"The city’s leadership should play a role in attracting businesses of all sizes to Amesbury. An active economic development and community planning office equipped with knowledgeable staff who have an understanding of our community culture and data to assist business owners and entrepreneurs in their market research and decision making will have a positive impact on our commerce and quality of life. The mayor is the face of the community and should proactively recruit businesses to Amesbury and hold departments accountable to follow up and provide support services. Through my work at our Chamber of Commerce over the last five years I have been active in recruiting new and established businesses who now call Amesbury home. I have established relationships with property owners and often assist with their planning."
"As mayor, I’m actively engaged in the important role of attracting employers to the city, including manufacturers. Businesses are crucial to the overall health of our community. Not only do they provide jobs and pay taxes, but many give generously to our local charities and non-profits, investing further in improving our quality of life. Our declining property tax rates signal to businesses that we’re serious about supporting economic growth in Amesbury and fostering relationships that benefit all of us. Our commitment to fiscal discipline instills confidence in Amesbury’s leadership, demonstrating that we are well run and moving in the right direction. These are the reasons why businesses are locating here and our residents love living here. Having a mayor in the corner office with 30+ years of proven, successful, executive experience in both the private and public sectors is vital to continuing our success attracting businesses and jobs to Amesbury."
“There is no single magic bullet, but it certainly begins with creating a culture of transparency in the community that is widely known. Thus, anyone approaching City Hall knows exactly the process behind every step to make things as seamless as possible. Outreach is key for sure, not only within the community to identify key locations and any potential impediments that need to be addressed, but also broad outreach outside of Amesbury. The mayor should be fully versed in the key industrial clusters that have the best chance of succeeding in the Merrimack Valley. There are many nonprofit and state agencies that can assist with identifying potential manufacturers and employers. The mayor should be aggressive in looking to take advantage of many of these local, state, and regional resources that can assist with attracting employers."
"Bailey’s moved to Seabrook, New Hampshire years ago. As finance committee chairperson and as chairman of the board years ago I dealt with these companies and they will tell you one thing and do another, WE have some good owners like ARC, Amesbury Industrial Supply, etc. I think diversification with small business might be better. I would not put eggs in one basket, when Baileys move out it took a while to recover. I worked on the Golden Triangle like everyone else after much consternation it happens. When another big fish comes along we will deal with it as your mayor."
Is the city prepared to host retail marijuana sales?
"Our first adult use marijuana retailer within the community will open soon. To my knowledge the city is prepared for that event. I understand there are comprehensive security plans in place for the business and the traffic. Additional retailers will open in the future and will go through the same approval process with the city."
"Absolutely. We are prepared and have been for some time. It is currently up to the state’s Cannabis Control Commission to issue their final approval for the first Amesbury establishment to open. Security, parking, traffic control, plans and contingencies have been developed and are ready to deploy. In the meantime, our police are watching, working with, and learning from the Salisbury authorities as they gain experience from the recent opening of their new facility on Route 110. Finally, there are additional safety and security plans that have been developed that encompass all aspects of the operation of the new facility and their impacts throughout our community. Amesbury voters have spoken loud and clear on cannabis legalization at the ballot box, and I’m proud that we’ve been at the forefront on both the medical and recreational aspects of this issue."
“It absolutely should be. Amesbury voters spoke clearly on this issue twice and overwhelmingly voted in favor of retail marijuana. Given the clear and early mandate by residents and voters, Amesbury should have been the first community in this region to begin taking advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. And there is a lot of opportunity if done correctly to maximize positive spillover into the rest of the business community in Amesbury. I was vocal from the beginning on this issue about the benefits of embracing this inevitable trend and pushed to integrate marijuana retail as seamlessly as possible into our existing business core in order to try and maximize and promote as much additional business activity as possible. Unfortunately, this path is not being currently taken.”
"I do not smoke but the 3 percent monies that will come back to the municipal corporation will help. My fear will be with those who smoke too much and bring harm like air traffic controllers and pilot etc might cause undue problems, I tried it once did not do anything for me. It may bring some help for medical problems alleviating pain, the extra revenue will help,"
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.