Social service panel is torn Wednesday, August 10, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Officials charged with helping the town reap money from tax-exempt social service agencies are wrangling over whether to target churches and other religious institutions.

Members of a study committee are struggling over exactly how to define social service providers as they begin researching a program for payments in lieu of taxes as well as the impact those providers have on town.

Some pushed last night to expand the scope of their study to include all non-profits, arguing doing so would provide more con.

And questions continued to be raised about whether the town could legally ask for money from only traditional social service providers like the South Middlesex Opportunity Council.

"Maybe Town Meeting gave us a project that is illegal," said Jim Palmer, who urged the group to consider churches because they provide meeting space for Alcoholic Anonymous and raise money for social service agencies.  "Much of their program is geared toward social services," he said.

Others, however, argued Town Meeting specifically forbade the committee from including churches in its probe when it voted in June to establish the 10-member group.  The vote followed mounting anger over proposed expansion projects by SMOC and Wayside Youth and Family Network.

Ironically, one of the most vocal opponents last night of broadening the scope was Town Meeting member Dawn Harkness.  Harkness fought on Town Meeting floor for the committee to examine all non-profits, but her motion was defeated.

"What this group is charged for is very limited," she said.  "We don't have a right to do whatever we want."

Town Meeting member Bob DeShaw, who is not a member of the study committee, predicted last night that SMOC director Jim Cuddy and planning director Gerard Desilets will protest if the town approaches social service agencies for payments in lieu of taxes and not all non-profits in town.

"They're both very smart people and watching every move," he said.

The committee last night tabled a vote on how to define social service agencies.  One definition, offered by committee member Cynthia Laurora, exempts churches and temples "whose primary function is to provide worship and spiritual services."

But it would include faith-based organizations that "may provide opportunities for worship but whose primary function is to deliver human services similar to those provided by secular non-profits."  That criterion may affect the Salvation Army, which has worship services.

"When church functions go beyond religious services, it moves into another category," said committee member Yakoov Cohn.

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