Nonprofit official decries criticism Thursday, June 16, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
Homeless shelters, programs for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and other social service programs have drawn an increasing amount of criticism in Framingham in recent months, but now one of the agencies most frequently targeted is fighting back.

"We think there's a lot of misinformation being spread, a lot of vitriol," said Jim Cuddy, executive director of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a large nonprofit group that runs homeless shelters, residential programs for people with substance abuse problems, mental health programs, and Head Start programs for children.  SMOC serves about 20,000 people in the area.

"There's a lot of rhetoric and a lot of anti-SMOC rhetoric.  But when you sift through it, what we see is it's coming from a very small number of people," said Cuddy.  "And we strongly believe that there are many people in the community who understand the nature of nonprofits, who fully support SMOC and its mission in the community.  At the end of the day, we feel that those people will come forward and have their voices heard."

Critics say Framingham is providing a disproportionately high number of social services and the agencies benefit from not having to pay taxes on some of their properties in town, essentially meaning that Framingham taxpayers are helping to support services received by residents of other towns.

In the latest salvo, Town Meeting last week approved a new task force to study the agencies and to come up with some sort of "payment in lieu of taxes" (PILOT) program.

Cuddy declined to comment on that particular move, but Jerry Desilets, SMOC's director of planning and former Town Meeting moderator, blasted the decision.

"I think the proposal that was on the floor was based on a lot of rhetoric," he said.  "It was a highly charged and emotional discussion that was unfortunately based on the intentional misstatement of many facts and preyed on the unsubstantiated fears that people may have around social service agencies in our community."

PILOT agreements are most often associated with schools; colleges and universities in the area often make the payments to their host communities.

Such payments are voluntary, said Desilets, and there's nothing in the law that would allow a town to require a nonprofit group to enter a PILOT agreement.  He likened the critics' arguments to someone saying they don't go to church so they don't want religious organizations to have any tax breaks, or they don't have children in the schools so they shouldn't have to pay that portion of their property taxes.

SMOC owns 82 properties in town and pays property taxes on 48 of them.  Only properties that serve an educational purpose are tax-exempt.

Town Meeting member Laurie Lee spearheaded the task force proposal.  She said she isn't against providing social services, but if Framingham is doing more than its fair share, the town should be compensated.

"Nobody is going after poor people or the needy," said Lee.  "But we feel there's a responsibility on these very high cash flow nonprofits to have some responsibility to support the communities they've chosen to come to."

She said she hopes the task force will look at agencies in other towns that are near Framingham or are demographically similar to see how those communities deal with the agencies.  Lee also said she wants to see a financial analysis of the impact on the town of hosting so many programs.

"Framingham residents -- they're really special people," she said.  "Most people really want to help others, and that's why we live here. . . . [But] one community can be destroyed by doing too much if no one else picks up their share."

SMOC has drawn flak most recently for its planned purchase of a former nursing home on Winter Street, which the agency hopes to use as a residential program for recovering substance abuse addicts and their families.  Residents who live in the area have lashed out at SMOC, saying the program has no place in their neighborhood.

Desilets said he has offered to meet with neighbors, but they declined.  Winter Street area residents have said they will only meet with SMOC in front of the Board of Selectmen.

"We're not going to hear a denigration of the people in our programs," he said, citing recent references to his agency's clients as "charity cases."

"We're going to have a respectful discussion, or we're not going to have a discussion."

Cuddy said those who know the work of the agencies understand that agencies do contribute to the towns that host them by helping people.

"We would be glad to quantify what our contribution to the community is," said Cuddy.  "It's frankly a specious argument to say that nonprofits don't give back to the community."

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