AMESBURY — Taxes, overdevelopment and transparency were among the topics touched on by the two mayoral candidates at a public forum Thursday night.
Amesbury Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kassandra Gove is on leave from her position while running for mayor against incumbent Ken Gray, who is seeking a fourth, two-year term.
The two faced off at Amesbury High School in a special candidate forum co-hosted by The Daily News and Amesbury Community Television.
Daily News editor Richard Lodge, who moderated the forum, said Gove gave an incomplete answer when asked if the city's property taxes are too high in a candidate questionnaire from the newspaper Sept. 16. He asked for clarification Thursday night.
"What I hear most often when I am talking to constituents is that they want to know where the money is going," Gove said. "Amesbury is crumbling and they want to know why things are in such terrible disrepair. That indicates to me that our taxes are not covering our expenses and that maybe they are not high enough to cover what we need to provide.
"There are people who believe they are high and there are people who believe they are low," she added. "But are we providing the services that we need to and are we maintaining our infrastructure to the quality that they expect? I don't believe we are."
Gray was quick to respond.
"You just heard that tax bills are going to go up, there will be no control, there will be no attempt to control our tax rates or control our tax bills. That is what we have been doing," Gray said. "When I ran for office six years ago, 83% of the people in town said that their biggest issue was that of our tax bills. It was crushing and it was especially crushing to senior citizens and people on fixed incomes.
"They could not afford to stay in Amesbury. We have successfully brought the tax rate down every single one of my six budgets to the point where we have gone from the fourth highest of the 351 cities and towns in the commonwealth and are now down to No. 62," Gray said. "And there will be further reduction once the numbers are announced soon. And our tax bills have gone up the second to the least in all of Essex County."
The Amesbury firefighters and teachers unions have endorsed Gove's candidacy, and Lodge asked Gray how the endorsements were not an indictment of his leadership and management skills.
"Leadership is not having a buddy-buddy relationship when you are a manager with your employees," Gray said. "Management is comprised of trust, management is comprised of respect, and I have that with all of the organizations in the community. These both were political stunts in a political year during contract negotiations."
Gove said Gray's response was "insulting."
"What I will do is work with (the unions) as a team to be creative, to fund their needs and support them, and what we do with our tax dollars is different than how we bring in our tax dollars," Gove said. "So we need to look into alternative funding sources."
Gove has often criticized Gray's administration for a lack of transparency. Lodge asked the mayor how he has improved access to city departments and services.
Gray responded by saying Gove’s claim that he is not accessible is “just made up."
“Transparency is saying what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and then deliver on that. We have done that," Gray said. "We laid out our goals six years ago and we repeat the goals every year. The metrics that track what we are doing are in our budget every year. There is an extensive transmittal letter from the mayor that articulates what we have done.“
Gove told the mayor there is a big difference between inbound marketing and outbound marketing.
"Relying upon everyone to come to your (website) and dig through things is not an effective way to implement marketing and communications," Gove said. "Unfortunately, not everything that we are looking for, the minutes from all of the meetings, the information about what you have done, is there. The School Committee meeting minutes are not up-to-date and there are no updated plans on the School Committee website. These things are not actually there."
For full coverage of the forum, which also featured City Council candidates, follow newburyportnews.com. or see Saturday’s print edition of The Daily News.
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.