Can social services be curbed? Friday, August 5, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Residents looking to stop the growth of social services agencies in town stressed yesterday they are not outright opposed to the agencies and repeated their call for the organizations to meet with neighbors in a public forum.

The group, which met with the Daily News editorial board, also pushed for a moratorium on new social service facilities until a committee investigating their impact on the town finishes its work.

Peter Adams, a member of a group that formed following a proposal to turn a Winter Street nursing home into a shelter, said social service providers have turned Framingham into a "stressed ecosystem."

"Eventually a community, like an ecosystem, can reach a point where it cannot absorb any more -- a tipping point, if you will -- and then even the smallest changes can have large results," he said.

Yesterday's forum followed a meeting last week between the editorial board and the heads of three social service agencies -- Advocates Inc., Wayside Youth and Family Network and South Middlesex Opportunity Council.  SMOC and Wayside in particular have come under fire for plans to move services into residential neighborhoods.

"We're not saying toss them out," said Town Meeting member Kathy Vassar.  "We're asking for a better line of communication.  We're asking them to work with our Board of Selectmen.  There is a process that the town has for formal discussions and meetings so the facts are on the record."

The eight residents who met with the editorial board, including longtime Town Meeting members and neighbors fighting the expansion plans, also cautioned the town needs to dig up more facts.

"I don't think anybody knows for sure exactly what numbers are," Vassar said.  "We need to be looking at it.  We need more studies.  We need to better understand what is happening, what has happened, where we're going, and what the impact is on Framingham."

SMOC has offered to meet with residents about its plans to turn the former Framingham nursing home into a shelter, but has resisted doing so in a public forum.  But residents yesterday pushed for agencies to meet in public with neighbors, not in someone's living room.

Donna Nelson of Lockland Avenue, where Wayside hopes to build a residential facility, said a public meeting allows the town to make the agencies accountable when they make promises about their projects, whether it's where a driveway will be placed or what kind of mitigation they will offer.

"If you say that in my living room what holds you to that?  What holds you to that other than your word against mine?" she said.

Selectmen tried recently to hold a "social services summit," but SMOC, Wayside and Advocates declined the invitation.  Janice Skelley, who lives in the neighborhood where SMOC plans to move its shelter, said that decision "did not show respect to the town and citizens of Framingham."

Those at the meeting also assailed the wet shelter on Irving Street, particularly Town Meeting member Paula Correia, who lives downtown.  The shelter, they said, is driving out businesses and threatens downtown revitalization.

"We're inundated, inundated with these social services of every type, shape and form," Correia said.

But the social service agencies, they argued, are affecting all corners of Framingham, not just downtown.

"This is not just a Winter Street problem.  Don't forget that.  We're talking about the entire town of Framingham," said Town Meeting member David Hutchinson.

Town Meeting member Ned Price suggested a change to the so-called Dover Amendment, which prevents communities from placing unreasonable restrictions on projects with educational or religious uses.  Price floated the idea of setting a cap on Dover Amendment projects in communities, similar to the way the state affordable housing law known as 40B operates.

The Dover Amendment, Adams complained, now gives social services agencies the power to do whatever they want.

"(They) don't care about whether they please the neighbors or not.  They don't have to care.  They don't have to care about anything because they have carte blanche to do what they want," he said.

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Review of social service agencies begins

Review of social service agencies begins
Panel to examine costs, benefits of being host town
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 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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