Report tallies sharp growth in agencies hosted by town Sunday, January 15, 2006
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Globe West
The number of properties owned by social service agencies in Framingham has risen nearly tenfold, from 26 in 1990 to about 240 today, a draft report from a town committee has found.

"If those numbers are accurate, that certainly is major growth," said Bob Berman, chairman of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Study Committee, which is looking into the impact of the agencies in town. "And I think it speaks to why my committee was formed in the first place and why we need to take a look at the effect."

His committee accepted the report from a subcommittee that collected the data, but the full committee has not evaluated the numbers yet.

Even if the numbers aren't exact, Berman said, there is no question there has been major growth in service agencies in town.

The committee was formed last year after the growing number of social service programs -- whose clients include substance abusers, homeless people, and battered women -- sparked controversy.

A downtown shelter for the homeless -- a "wet shelter" that will offer a bed even to those abusing drugs or alcohol -- has been criticized because its clients included sex offenders.  Another battle broke out last year over a proposed residential program for recovering addicts and their families on Winter Street.

Critics argue that the town is providing more than its fair share of services compared with surrounding communities and that because some properties owned by the agencies are tax-exempt, Framingham taxpayers are essentially subsidizing the programs.  The critics say they are worried that the programs could be bad for public safety and property values.

One of the issues the study committee is looking into is whether the agencies should be asked to make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, which some other tax-exempt institutions, such as universities, make across the state.

Much of the subcommittee's report focuses on whether the programs have affected homeowners' property values.  The group looked at changes in the assessed values of properties near such programs.

In some cases, such properties saw below-average increases in values in recent years, the report said.

Janet Del Prete, a lifelong Framingham resident, lives just outside downtown in one of the homes that the subcommittee found had grown in value at a rate below the town's average.

She said she attributes her home's below-average growth to its location, not necessarily to her proximity to a program.

"We're in the downtown area," she said.  "The south side has always been known as the down side, the down-scale" area of town.

Until recently, she said, the nearby house where a program is located hasn't been a problem, but now the exterior is deteriorating while the agency has been doing work on the interior.

"It's starting to look shabby," said Del Prete.  "It's going to make me look like I live in a slum."

Del Prete said she is also concerned about her overall tax bill, which she thinks is too high because of tax breaks given to the programs.

"I think it's time other towns start to take their fair share," she said.  "I think Framingham has supported the underdog for quite a few years."

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council, the largest social-service agency in town, owns 10 of the 36 social-service program sites studied in the report.

"Over the last dozen years or so, there have been a number of credible studies that show . . . that the siting of social-service programs have not had a negative impact on property values," said Jerry Desilets, director of planning for the regional council.

He referred a reporter to several studies that show that affordable housing and various types of group homes, including those for the mentally ill or people with developmental disabilities, do not hurt property values.

In Framingham, he said, most social-service programs blend in easily with their neighborhood and would be difficult to distinguish from any other home.

Berman, the committee chairman, said it's too soon to interpret what the numbers in the report mean.

"It certainly looks like there potentially might be some trends, but I haven't had an opportunity to dig deep into it yet."

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