LAWRENCE — Maria de la Cruz was sitting at home, nursing a respiratory virus that had laid her up since before Thanksgiving, watching her colleagues on the City Council's Youtube TV station as they debated a new tax rate for homes and businesses in the city.
As she watched Tuesday night , she realized that the seven members present weren't going to get past a deadlock, so she got dressed and dragged herself in to City Hall, coughing and wheezing, but bundled up in a wool hat, coat and mittens.
The debate on tax classification, which sets the tax rate and the amount home and business owners pay in property taxes, had gone on for about two hours when de la Cruz finally sat down with the rest of the council around 9:30 p.m.
After councilors brought her up to speed, she acted quickly, proposing a tax factor that seemed most likely to find the elusive six votes -- a supermajority -- needed to pass. A tax factor of 1.75 would increase taxes on single-family homes by about $5 a year. Taxes on condos will go up $90 a year; on two-family homes, $92 a year; on three-family homes, $75 a year; on commercial property, $615 a year; and on industrial property, $2,134 a year.
The council took one, final vote, approving de la Cruz's motion, putting an end to the grueling series of nearly a dozen votes that seemed as if they would never end.
"I saw they were tight and I needed to be part of it," de la Cruz said after the vote, as she was leaving City Hall to go back home. "I don't want the city to go down anymore. I want the city to stabilize."
But before de la Cruz showed up, the council was mired in a philosophical deadlock. Some wanted to vote on a tax rate more favorable to businesses, while others wanted a rate more favorable to homeowners.
"Last year, a lot of small businesses were affected with the Columbia Gas disaster," argued Council President Kendrys Vasquez, as he sought to shift more of the tax burden onto homeowners and less onto businesses. "I believe, to strengthen the city and its finances and to help the economy, we should give them (businesses) some relief."
At-large Councilor Brian DePena agreed, saying higher taxes for businesses means "the customer pays more. The city, when it needs money, the first place they go is businesses. And that's not right."
But At-large Councilor Ana Levy disagreed.
"We need to look at ways to alleviate all these increases," she said. "Water, sewer, taxes, how are we helping the people? We are going more and more for increases. We should look at decreases."
As they stuck to their guns, each vote failed, usually by either a 5-2 vote or a 4-3 vote. Six votes are needed to pass the tax rate and with councilors Pavel Payano and de la Cruz missing, it was getting tougher and tougher to find a compromise.
At one point, Council Vice President Jeovanny Rodriguez suggested delaying the vote another few days until all the councilors were present.
But city officials said that was a bad idea.
City Assessor Alexcy Vega warned that if the council didn't approve a tax rate Tuesday night, the mailing of tax bills could be delayed by months. A delay in mailing out tax bills would mean a delay in the arrival of much needed property tax revenue -- something that could return the city to receivership just weeks after the state-appointed receiver had left the city.
"If you don't act today, it will set us back," he said. "There will be no tax bills and no revenue." He added that lack of revenue would mean lack of services for the elderly and veterans, among others.
City Council President Kendrys Vasquez agreed, saying failure to agree on a tax rate would "put the city in jeopardy to collect revenue. It's important we come to a compromise. Not everyone is going to be happy. I will not jeopardize the city."
District E Councilor David Abdoo stressed that the city is still in the cross-hairs of state officials and that any misstep could bring the Department of Revenue storming back.
"Boston continues to watch us," he said. "The law that set up the receivership would allow him (the receiver) to return if we don't do something responsible here. We have to set a tax rate."
Mayor Dan Rivera even got into the act. While watching the proceedings on TV from his office on the fourth floor, Rivera entered the council chambers as they were taking a break, urging them to take a vote.
Afterwards, he complimented them. Most of them, anyway.
"Their most important votes are the tax rate and passing the budget," Rivera said. "In the end, you have to give it to Maria (de la Cruz) for coming in here sick. And shame on Pavel Payano for not being here."
Payano's presence could have broken the deadlock much earlier in the evening, just as de la Cruz's vote broke the logjam almost as soon as she showed up.
A message left on Payano's cell phone was not returned Tuesday night. None of the other councilors knew where he was.