Why should agencies give cash to town? Tuesday, May 9, 2006
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
A committee charged with investigating the impact of social service agencies on Framingham came back with not one, but two reports.  The majority report tallied up costs for schools, police, fire department and other town services the agencies required -- expenses the nonprofits didn't pay property taxes to help cover.  The minority report, filed by four of the committee's 10 members, took issue with the assumptions behind the majority's figures and stressed the ways Framingham residents benefit from the programs the organizations provide.

One area where the reports agree is in their call for better communications and coordination between town government and social services agencies.  There is also agreement on this point from the leaders of the town's largest social service agencies.  They'd like someone in town government who could help them in dealing with anxious neighbors, someone who could point them toward sites where their programs would be welcomed instead of resisted.

The PILOT committee wants a full-time "human services director" named.  We're not convinced it's a full-time job, and worry that if it was, such a person might become more an advocate for the agencies than an advocate for the town.  It would be better to entrust the responsibility to the new town manager or his assistant.

The liaison might quickly find there's not much to talk about with the social service agencies -- especially if he or she starts with the PILOT Committee's major demand: that the agencies make cash donations -- Payments In Lieu Of Taxes, which is where the committee got its name -- to the town.

No one can force the agencies to make such payments, and it will not go unnoticed that the committee makes no mention of soliciting payments from the 95 percent of tax-exempt properties that are not social service providers.

Moreover, the leaders of social service agencies may not be feeling all that generous these days.  Elected town boards have recently imposed expensive setbacks on two major social service agency projects:  the Planning Board shot down a downtown community health center, and selectmen denied a road access permit for Wayside's youth services campus.

Both projects have been in the works for years, and both agencies are taking the fight to court.  Social service agencies may justly conclude they are better off spending their scarce funds on lawyers to fight the town in court rather than on PILOT payments that may -- or may not -- purchase smoother relations with the political class.

To the cheers of the anti-social services crowd, town officials sent a strong message with their votes against the two projects.  But they also increased tensions and distrust between the agencies and the town, making voluntary PILOT payments unlikely.  Both PILOT Committee reports offer useful information and thoughtful recommendations -- along with political spin.  But it will take political leadership to replace the combative relationship between Framingham government and the agencies that serve its neediest people with one that is more constructive for all involved.

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