Cambridge freezes tax rate

Cambridge homeowners can relax. Last night’s unanimous city council vote sends to the state Department of Revenue a plan that freezes or reverses most city property tax rates — a needed salve after last year’s brutal revaluation.

Under the city manager’s plan, $10 million of the city’s free cash will be used to pay for various needs, with the bulk of it — $6 million — directly easing the pain of tax bills due Oct. 13 after rote state approval. The average single-family home will be assessed at 2.9 percent less than last year; the average two-family at 15.3 percent less; and the average three-family at 7.6 percent less. The average condo assessment will not change.

The owner of that average two-family home will save $718, according to figures provided by city manager Robert Healy.

Those seeing increases of $500 or more, city officials said, were those who’d done major renovations in the past year. They represent less than 2 percent of city property, or 312 parcels out of Cambridge’s 17,785.

The two-hour hearing was full of councilors expressing gratitude for the work of Healy’s office, including near-unanimous praise for fiscal management giving the city $53 million in free cash this year and, as more than one councilor noted, the lowest tax rate in the state. The only dissonant note from the council came from Ken Reeves, who noted a tax freeze does little to help people whose houses were reassessed to nosebleed value but can’t afford to pay the higher tax bill.

“I’m glad you’re so house-rich, but if you’re not also bank-rich, it doesn’t help,” Reeves said, calling the forcible enriching of retired, middle-class people who scramble to keep up with payments “unfair, and I’d say it’s un-American.”

Reeves suggested the city could do more to protect those hurt most by last year’s revaluation. Alluding to the three explanatory tax brochures being sent by the city, and those noting it was not in Cambridge’s nature to cut services to avoid tax hikes, he rebuked his peers by noting that “the best government doesn’t just explain why you just got run over by a car. They want to keep you from getting run over by a car.”

That seemed to earn an allusion in return from Mayor Michael A. Sullivan: “How anybody can say this body hasn’t done anything is beyond me,” he said. “It’s self-serving.”

But Reeves better captured the feeling of the public comments, which warned against taking money from free cash while bringing on debt to build city projects and, most stridently, blasted the city’s deferral of too-high taxes for the disabled, poor and elderly. One member of the public called it “another shell game where you take the property of elders who have taxes deferred.”

Brian Murphy, the councilor who leads the city’s finance committee, agreed the deferrals — now to be for people with income of up to $40,000, from $20,000 — weren’t ideal. The deferrals pile up over the years to up to half the value of a house, essentially leaving a lien that causes massive debt for the inheritors.

Unfortunately, he said, reform must go through the state and is years away. But the process has started.

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