PEABODY — Mayor Ted Bettencourt is defending the decision to raise taxes — rather than tap the city’s reserve fund — as necessary to Peabody’s economic health. Not everyone agrees.
Taxes were approved to rise $94 per average property (valued at $288,000) by the City Council on a 7 to 3 vote last week. The increase is needed because the city has embarked on several ambitious projects, including the construction of a new middle school, the renovation of Crystal Lake and the installation of an artificial turf football field at the high school, Bettencourt said. Additionally, he stressed that Peabody faces the unknown when it comes to yearly costs associated with both the South Essex Sewer District and sending students to the new North Shore Technical High School in Danvers, set to open next fall.
In a city famed for keeping taxes low, however, some councilors complained that there is enough money in the city’s reserve fund to provide a tax break for hard-pressed Peabody residents. Member Dave Gravel points out that with the city’s reserves at $13.1 million and its stabilization fund at roughly $4 million, that gives a more than adequate $17 million financial cushion.
Colleague Anne Manning-Martin agrees, seeing this as a debt owed the taxpayers.
“It’s their money. At what point do we return it to them? I thought this was the year,” she said. And what are all the city’s recent efforts at savings for, she asked, citing the mayor’s successful effort to decrease health care costs by moving city workers to a statewide plan. “We do these things ... to get support for the taxpayers.”
Retiring ward Councilor Rico Mello also voted to support accessing the reserves.
Most councilors backed the mayor, however, though Gravel believes he would have had more support if the budget were handled differently, with the tax classification conducted simultaneously with the vote on the budget — a vote that currently takes place in the spring.