SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 31, 2013

Benton: How things are done in the Valley of the Sun

Nelson Benton
The Salem News

---- — Earlier this spring I signed up for the Peoria Leadership Institute, which offers citizens of the Arizona community I now call home an inside look at how municipal government works.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the way things work here with how cities and towns operate in Massachusetts. The contrasts are startling in several respects:

While Bay State municipalities derive the lion’s share of their revenue from the property tax, it’s the sales tax that is paramount for cities like Peoria.

The local tax rate here is 1.80 percent and comes on top of a state sales tax rate of 6.6 percent and a county sales tax of 0.7 percent. (The Peoria rate is actually quite reasonable. In most other Maricopa County communities it exceeds 2 percent, and in the town of Guadalupe it’s a whopping 4 percent.)

Most of the property tax revenue goes to support the school districts, which operate completely independent of cities and towns.

Peoria, like other large Arizona cities, operates its own court system (for misdemeanors and other lesser offenses) with a chief judge appointed by the city council.

Zoning, used primarily to discourage growth in Massachusetts, is meant to promote it here. Peoria, which was home to just over 1,000 people upon its incorporation in 1954, has a population of more than 150,000 now. That number is projected to exceed 500,000 when it’s built out around the middle of this century.

Of course, these cities and towns are located in a state that is centuries younger than most of the communities on the North Shore. Arizona celebrated 100 years of statehood in 2012.

George Washington never visited the Valley of the Sun, and there are few buildings one could describe as truly historic. On the other hand, there is something to be said for having plenty of modern roads, buildings, and ideas. The oldest fire station in Peoria was built in 1990, while Peabody’s still-functioning Central Fire Station dates back to 1873.

All that shiny new equipment in Peoria’s public works yard can be explained, at least in part, by the fact taxpayers don’t have to pay a cop a minimum four hours’ overtime each time someone cracks open a manhole cover — another Bay State anachronism. Those road details so commonplace in Massachusetts are a rarity here.

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One has to wonder about Peabody Councilor-at-large Anne Manning-Martin’s motives in questioning a $325,000 state grant that will be used to prevent childhood asthma among residents of several North Shore communities including hers.

At a recent council meeting, Manning-Martin whined about Peabody having been “elbowed out” by Salem’s health department as lead agency for the worthwhile initiative.

“As a kid from Peabody, I find that hard to accept,” she said. Peabody Health Director Sharon Campbell (one of several excellent holdovers from the Bonfanti administration) assured councilors it was no big deal and reaffirmed her support for the program.

As one of the bolder and more innovative thinkers on the council, one would hope to find Manning-Martin promoting, rather than discouraging, efforts at regional cooperation. It’s long past time cities and towns cast off the Colonial-era chains of parochialism that have bound them for so long.