Late Assessments Clouding Campaign

The Cambridge City Council last night voted unanimously to ask the state for permission to send out and collect estimated tax bills, in an effort to keep the city solvent while it sorts out a tangled reassessment of all local property.

Several hours of rancorous debate--filled with references to the city council elections only a month away--preceded the vote. The home rule petition asks the Massachusetts legislature to allow the sending of tax bills identical to the half-year bills homeowners paid at this time last fall.

A second tax bill will go out as usual in early spring. But instead of being merely the second half of the total payment, the spring bill will reflect the results of the city's four-year drive to reassess all of its property at 100 per cent of its market value. The spring tax bills could be substantially higher or lower than the fall bills depending on how the individual properties are assessed, officials said.

Before the final figures are set, the council is likely to skew the tax rate, so that businesses will pay a higher rate than homeowners. The council declared last night that its policy was to set residential taxes at the minimum permissible under state law.

Originally the 100-per-cent reassessment was to have been concluded in early summer, allowing the new assessments to be reflected on fall tax bills.

But Rudy Russo, the chairman of the Board of Assessors, told the council a long tale of bureaucratic delays and contract snafus. "Obviously it's taken us a lot longer than expected, and it may take us a lot longer still," he said.

Many city homeowners have charged that the delays--which should prevent notification of the new tax assessments until after the November 3 citywide elections--are politically motivated, the work of councilors fearful of electoral reprisals should assessments increase dramatically.

But Russo and city manager Robert Healy said they had never been asked by any local politicians to delay the proceedings.

Wendy Abt, a candidate for the council, attacked in strong terms the delays which she termed an "enormous failure." When earlier deadlines were missed, "someone should have screamed bloody murder," Abt said. "The city's blown it," she added.