Nonprofit agencies draw fire: Framingham
candidates seek change in services’ treatment
Sunday, February 19, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- With social service agencies subjected to near-constant criticism these days, it’s not surprising that most selectman candidates are taking aim at the nonprofits.

They’re echoing familiar complaints about how the organizations are costing the town tax dollars, standing in the way of a revitalized downtown and turning Framingham into a social service mecca.

But when it comes to changing those conditions, many of the candidates tend to be short on solutions.

Mario Alvarez, a 33-year-old real estate broker, insists social service agencies are "taking advantage" of Framingham and argues the town can create conditions to make it harder for them to expand.

When asked how the town could do that, he paused for several seconds and suggested town officials could question the need for new programs and services when agencies propose them.  Doing that, he says, would send a new message to the nonprofits.

"Just let them know we don't like what we see coming out of your organization," he said.

One problem with that notion, however, is that social service agencies are under no obligation to notify the public or town officials before they buy property or establish new programs and services.

Incumbent Katie Murphy pointed to her challengers’inexperience in municipal government, saying she is the only candidate with "a long, long record of identifying the problem, figuring out what to do about it and putting those pieces into place."

Jim Rizoli, who is a Town Meeting member, is the only other of the five selectman candidates who holds an elected office.

"Not one of them would have a clue how to go about this.  I have a clue how to do it, and I’m willing to put myself out there and go after it," Murphy said.

A key step toward slowing the growth of the tax-exempt agencies, she says, is attracting more tax-paying businesses to buy property that might otherwise come under control of a nonprofit.

She cited her effort to secure funding for the two new planners in the Planning and Economic Development Department who will encourage the growth of businesses, she said.

Before Town Meeting approved funding for the planners last year, Murphy told the session she was concerned about the "preponderance of nonprofits" downtown and argued the planners could make a difference.

"From me, you're seeing real action not just the rhetoric," she said last week.

Murphy agrees Framingham is home to more social service programs than nearby communities, but she is careful not to heap criticism on the agencies, saying they invested in downtown at a time when no one else would.  She also says it is unrealistic to expect them to contribute payments in lieu of taxes, something for which many people are clamoring.

The other candidates -- Alvarez, Rizoli and Jason Smith -- are far more antagonistic toward the organizations.  The four will face off in a March 7 preliminary election.  The top two vote-getters will move on to the April townwide election.

"We've done our fair share," Smith said.  "If someone gets to use our services, they should have to pay for them as well."

Rizoli proposes a radical idea that even he agrees may not be realistic.  He wants to see all of Framingham's social services placed in one spot as part of a massive complex.  Without a dramatic overhaul like that, he says, downtown revitalization will never happen.

When asked how the town could convince agencies to agree to such an idea, Rizoli said they would welcome it because their clients would be able to obtain services in one location.

"This is prime real estate," he said about downtown.  "You get rid of the bad elements down there...there's no limit to what you can do."

Like Alvarez, Smith calls for a get-tough approach with social services, saying it is time to "force" agencies to pay for the town services they use.  When asked how he would convince the nonprofits to pay voluntary payments in lieu of taxes, he said he hoped a town committee now studying the agencies would provide an answer.

"Can we ask them to give back a little bit and ask them to be the best neighbors they can?  Is that too much to ask for?" he said.

Steve Hakar will also appear on the ballot as a candidate for selectman and School Committee.  But he is interested in serving on the School Committee and was not interviewed for this story.

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