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Council Calls For Harvard To Pay Up

Order comes after steep rise in city residents' property tax bills

By Michael M. Grynbaum, Crimson Staff Writer

With Cambridge property taxes up sharply this year, city councillors unanimously called on Harvard and MIT to increase their voluntary annual payments to the city yesterday, a move that plays on local resentment toward tax-free universities.

A second resolution, seeking to limit property tax exemptions for local nonprofits, also passed.

“It’s important we recognize the simple fact that for over a decade, Harvard and MIT have not adjusted their annual tax payment,” said Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, co-sponsor of the resolution.

Cantabrigians have cried afoul in recent weeks after a property reassessment left some residents facing higher property tax rates, in some instances nearly double those of last year. Councillors said the controversy has highlighted the inequity between tax burdens for residents and their wealthy scholastic neighbors.

“We’ve been struggling for many years for Harvard University to pay their fair share,” said Councillor Marjorie C. Decker.

Though Harvard is Cambridge’s largest landowner, its non-profit status exempts the University from paying most property taxes. Under a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement negotiated in 1990, Harvard is required to pay the city $1.7 million annually, in addition to $4.3 million in property taxes on non-tax-exempt land owned by the University.

“We’re very interested to hear how the conversation goes tonight,” said Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power in an interview earlier yesterday. “We want to listen to the dialogue before responding.” The University did not send a representative to last night’s meeting. Harvard and city officials have been in talks about a new PILOT agreement for over a year.

Trying to eke out more funds from local universities is a political pastime in Cambridge, where similar proposals crop up nearly every election cycle.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen an order like this,” said Robert Winters, editor of the Cambridge Civic Journal. “Anytime there’s a dispute with Harvard or a property tax issue like we have right now, there’s immediately a knee-jerk reaction to put pressure on the universities to cough up taxes.”

Councillor David P. Maher admitted the council’s request that Harvard remit retroactive payments on the past decade’s PILOT fees was not realistic.

“I honestly don’t think that’s going to go anywhere,” he said.

But Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 made clear he is looking for more concrete results. “I hope we can do more than have a discussion,” he said.

Winters said blaming Harvard for fiscal problems is a surefire way to calm the electorate.

“If you’re a local city candidate or councillor, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” Winters said. “You cannot lose by shooting at Harvard.”

But supporters of the resolution were quick to quell suggestions that the bill played on local anti-Harvard sentiment.

“It’s not meant to be adversarial at all,” said Galluccio, sporting a crimson tie for the occasion.

“It’s inarguable that there are enormous benefits that these institutions bring to our city,” he told the council later. Councillors say they plan to discuss the issue with University President Lawrence H. Summers at an early December reception at Summers’ residence, where Reeves said the lawmakers will “give him our thoughts.”

“Universities have become big business,” Reeves told The Crimson. “Perhaps they should also pay the taxes that big businesses pay.”

David R. Slavitt, a Leverett House Senior Common Room affiliate and former candidate for state representative, dismissed the council’s plans to raise taxes on Harvard.

“Why don’t they also pass a resolution asking Santa Claus to be more generous to all the children?” Slavitt scoffed.

Slavitt’s November opponent, Democratic councillor Timothy J. Toomey, was a co-sponsor of the resolution. “Rep. Toomey has been demagoguing this issue for years,” Slavitt said. “He knows that the constitution of the commonwealth protects Harvard against being taxed the way he is proposing. He is simply looking at an enclave of wealth and privilege and he wants to rip it off for the benefit of the undeserving poor.”

—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas. harvard.edu.

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