Crime, social services link is questioned Thursday, March 23, 2006
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Globe West
A new report on the impact of social service agencies on Framingham suggests that the agencies, which run everything from meals programs for the elderly to a downtown homeless shelter, are linked to rising crime and sluggish growth in property values.

But some are crying foul, saying the report's methods are flawed.

"I'm furious about it.  It's an embarrassment," said Wesley Ritchie, who is a member of the committee that drafted the report, the PILOT Study Committee.

The committee was formed several months ago in response to a debate about social service agencies in town.  Critics say Framingham is providing far more services than surrounding communities, and it's bad for the town because many agency properties are tax-exempt, even though they use town services.

Supporters, on the other hand, say the social services are located in town because it's where the people who need them live, and they accuse opponents of overstating or misstating the negative effects.

The draft report -- which says its findings are presented in hopes of "identifying trends" or "suggesting connections" -- noted that between 2000 and 2005 the number of people arrested who provided the downtown "wet" shelter as their home address increased by 600 percent.

It also noted a November presentation by Police Chief Steven Carl that said 40 percent of arrests occurred in a 1-square-mile area around downtown.  That is the same location where many social service sites are concentrated.

The report also looked at houses next to social service facilities and found that, in some cases, their value appeared to increase at a slower rate than houses elsewhere.

Committee member Steve Orr, who is also a Town Meeting member, said, "My personal concern is the impact of social service agencies on property values in the town of Framingham."

But Ritchie lambasted the inclusion of the property data, saying the sample was too small and values fluctuate for many reasons. "There is no way to actually tie much of the data that this report includes to social service use," said Ritchie, who is running for School Committee and works as a legislative aide to Democratic state Representative Tom Sannicandro of Ashland.

He said the same is true of crime statistics, which could be correlated with any number of factors.

"I have been fighting all along, every single meeting, to have some of this junk thrown out," said Ritchie.  "It's a real shame if this is what gets through as a final report."

Ritchie, who is part of a minority of four on the 10-member committee, said there might be a minority report drafted because the two sides are so deeply divided on how to examine the issue.

Other findings in the report include:

The town of 67,000 hosts 241 social service sites, far more than any neighboring community or any of the 10 demographically similar communities chosen for comparison, even with population taken into account.  For example, Lynn, population 89,000, has 123 social service sites; Quincy, population 88,000, has 101 sites; Marlborough, population 36,000, has 34 sites; and Waltham, population 59,000, has 46 sites.

The tax bill for the average home is about $30 per year higher because of properties owned by social service agencies that are tax-exempt.

While it has been discussed in Framingham, there are no other towns in the state that ask for payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit social service agencies.  (Some communities do collect such payments from educational or cultural institutions.)

Committee chairman Bob Berman, who has sided with the minority, said the report was put together by one member and he doesn't consider it to be an official draft report.  He wouldn't comment on the substance.

Laurie Lee, the member of the committee who took the lead role in drafting the report, disagreed, saying the committee voted March 9 for her to assemble the draft report, which she did.

A forum on social services is being held at 7 tonight in the public hearing room of the Memorial Building.  It will include a discussion of the findings of the committee and potentially the presentation of the draft report.

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