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Clarifying a Candidate’s Proposal

To the Editor:

Your October 17 article about the city council candidates forum [“Rent Control, City Government Organization, and University Taxation Debated by Council Candidates”] misstated my proposal for restructuring the tax system in Cambridge. New York City has found a payroll tax for city employees to be a good way to maintain the city’s infrastructure and schools with the help of people who want the benefits of working in the city but prefer to live in the suburbs. What I proposed was a similar system for Cambridge. I did not and do not propose to single out the employees of non-profit organizations and institutions. Furthermore, the payroll tax should only apply to those who earn salaries in excess of a true living wage.

While I understand that the paper has space constraints, the article should have included the motivation and context for this proposal. Generating revenue by a property tax system in a city where the two largest land owners and two largest employers have tax free status has obvious shortcomings. It would require an amendment to the state constitution for Cambridge to tax non-profits like MIT and Harvard, despite their huge incomes and profit enabling activities. Those who work in Cambridge use our city’s infrastructure, whether or not they live here and pay any property tax. A small payroll tax on those who earn salaries comfortably above a living wage would get around these problems.

There are several additional motivations for relying much more on a city income tax and for getting rid of most property taxes altogether. Property tax works as a regressive tax on housing, a basic human right. Property owners who have tenants pass on the cost of property taxes. Those who solely own their residence are taxed based on the property values which are currently in an upward spiral -- much steeper than the increase of incomes. This cost of living impact is especially harmful to older homeowners who are on fixed incomes. An income tax would be bureaucratically easier to implement since it could just piggyback on the federal paperwork. Fundamentally, the property tax system drives a city government to promote development towards the most lucrative land uses rather than developing land in the ways that will best enhance the city for all of its residents. Even without this change, the city should be more concerned with preserving the community fabric of the city from the economic cleansing that is currently underway than simply looking at the balance sheets and relishing our AAA bond rating. But restructuring the incentives would make it easier for the councilors to do what they are charged to do -- work on behalf of the residents of Cambridge.

Aimee Smith, PhD ’02
Candidate for Cambridge City Council