Review of social service agencies begins
Panel to examine costs, benefits of being host town
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
Programs that offer help to a variety of people in need, including battered women, substance abusers, and low-income children, will be facing more scrutiny in Framingham.

The PILOT Study Committee, which met for the first time last week, will probe the impact of the programs on the town's schools and its police, fire, and emergency medical services.

"I think we understand we have an awesome responsibility," said Bob Berman, a Town Meeting member who was elected chairman of the new committee.

The committee has also been given the task of looking at whether social service agencies should make payments to the town in lieu of taxes.

Some have criticized what they see as a proliferation of homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, and other such facilities in town.  In recent months, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a giant social services agency, has drawn flak for its efforts to convert a former Winter Street nursing home into a home for recovering substance abusers and their families.

Critics argue that because the agencies operate out of properties that are often tax-exempt, the average town taxpayer is subsidizing the programs without any help from taxpayers in surrounding communities whose citizens are flocking to Framingham to use the programs.

It was clear from the questions and comments at the inaugural meeting that the 10 committee members bring a variety of perspectives to the issue.

Dawn Harkness, also a Town Meeting member, said she volunteers at a SMOC women's shelter on the weekends, and she urged fellow committee members to take into account the good that social services give to the community.  For example, about 500 people are employed by SMOC, she said, and there's no way to know how many elderly are allowed to stay in their homes thanks to the SMOC Meals on Wheels program.

"I don't think you can look at costs without looking at benefits," said Harkness.

She also pointed out that SMOC pays taxes on most of its properties.

Committee member Steven Orr, a member of both Town Meeting and the Conservation Commission, has voiced concern in the past about the costs to Framingham.  He said he'd like to see more information collected, including the number of 911 calls to addresses where social services agencies are located, as well as the cost of providing police, fire, and ambulance service to the agencies.

Committee member Cynthia Laurora said she wants to find out where the people who receive services are from.

Town Counsel Christopher Petrini told the panel in a July 22 memo that any payment in lieu of taxes program must be voluntary.

Petrini wrote that "the local municipality has no authority by which it can require a tax-exempt organization to participate.  Yet, there are many organizations that realize that they are receiving valuable services without paying their share of the costs and have voluntarily agreed to pay for those services."

Boston and Cambridge both have extensive programs in which various organizations, including universities and hospitals, make the voluntary payments.

The PILOT committee, an acronym which stands for payment in lieu of taxes, is scheduled to report back to Town Meeting, which created it, in the fall.  Town Moderator Edward Noonan, who appointed half the members, told the members they do not need to finish their work by then but must at least give an interim report.

The Board of Selectmen appointed the other five members.  The committee will meet on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

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