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Deciding the City's Foreign Policy And Other Weighty Matters

By Andre C. Karp


"Shall the city of Cambridge be authorized to tax real estate located in the city and owned by any college or university, such tax to be based on an assessment of 50 percent of fair value?"

Cambridge voters will almost certainly overwhelmingly approve this first non-binding referendum but what of it? Harvard, the city's largest landlord, and other schools such as Lesley College and MIT are protected from paying property tax on their educational facilities because from the tax rolls. The exemptions are a must if education is to remain at all affordable, officials at Harvard and elsewhere insist.

For years this exemption has been a source of irritation to city officials, and in the wake of Proposition 2 1/2, the provision allowing Harvard et al to save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually has many city council members predicting a fast-approaching crisis. Nearly half of the total property in Cambridge falls under the non-profit institution exemption.

During the past year Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci has led the effort to glean extra revenue from Harvard with a variety of schemes which include special user fees on the University's water requirements, and added charges on Harvard clubs serving alcohol.

There have been a few faint signs from Harvard that the University is beginning to realize that its annual in-lieu-of-tax payment to the city could be raised to help keep Cambridge afloat in the new are of Massachusetts fiscal austerity. Last month, for example, the University settled a decade-old dispute with city officials about the Cambridge St. overpass near the Science Center by paying about $150,000 to cover repair costs incurred by the city.

But the city council is now waking up to the fact that a few concessions by Harvard and other schools represent only a drop in the bucket of the property tax funds Cambridge loses every year through the non-profit exemption.

A landslide Vote in favor of Question I could in the long run be the initial step of convincing the state legislature to at least amend the special provision for private colleges and universities. And for now it could scare Harvard into gradually increasing its voluntary share of the property tax burden.


"Shall the Cambridge City Council call upon our representative in Congress to oppose sending U.S. troops, military advisors, arms, or military aid of any kind whatsoever to the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala?"

The Cambridge City Council may be the only local municipal government in the nation that boasts a sub-committee on foreign affairs.

From writing letters to repressive governments on behalf of jailed dissidents to opposing foreign arms deals, several council members--most notably David Wylie--have shown time and time again in the last year that this community's most pressing concerns extend far beyond the banks of the Charles.

While some of his own colleagues have criticized Wylie's international efforts in the council chambers as misplaced shenanigans, Wylie has often provided a sound justification for them.

The decision-making process in Washington, especially under the new Reagan ad ministration, has ceased to be responsible, Wylie says, and many Cambridge citizens no longer believe that can significantly influence the nation's foreign policies. As a consequence, the only place to start opposing current federal policy is on the local level. The hope is that other municipalities across the country will follow Cambridge's lead, and that as a result a groundswell of anti-Reagan opinion will eventually reach--and be heard in--the White House.

The whole idea sounds more than a tad dealistic, but at least in on significant case, Wylie and council supporters have begun to be proven correct.

When earlier this year, faced with a federal civil defense evacuation plan which called for Cambridge's residents to travel more than 100 miles away to the village of Greenfield, Mass., in the event of a nuclear attack, the city council decided to take a stand. The body refused to distribute the federal plans, and instead assembled its own blueprint for avoiding nuclear disaster: a mass-produced pamphlet detailing the case for disarmament.

In the last few months dozens of cities and towns from as far away as Oregon have requested copies so that they may pursue similar efforts. It comes as no surprise, then, that the council followed the lead of area groups which oppose U.S. military aid to Latin America and agreed to include Question #2 on this year's ballot.

Council members acknowledge that support for this non-binding referendum will not provide a final solution to what some see as a moral dilemma in EL Salvador and neighboring countries, but they maintain that it could very well be a beginning.


"Shall the City Council be instructed to contact the Mass. Congressional delegation to place a freeze on the further development of nuclear weapons in the city of Cambridge?"

Like Question #2, the third non-binding referendum is expected to attract more than the usual share of student voters to the polls tomorrow. That's good news for city liberals--members of the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) alate--who traditionally have relied on student support to win election to the city council and school committee.

Not only city liberals, however, have been jumping on the anti-nuke banwagon during this year's campaign. Perceiving the overwhelming popularity of the city's disarmament pamphlet, nearly every incumbent city councilor has attempted to grab a share of the credit for its distribution. city councilors can only gain from supporting students' efforts to stop nuclear research at MIT, Harvard and private laboratories. Because of the non-binding status of Question #3, as well as the potential unconstitutionality of banning all nuclear studies, most older voters will probably shrug off this issue with a laugh.

But the student voters will, the incumbents hope, flock to the polls to register their opposition to nuclear weapons development and military aid to Latin America.

And once in, the reasoning goes, they may well also support the councillors who helped put the questions on the ballot.

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