Social service agencies: We fill a critical need Thursday, March 9, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Local social service providers, under fire for much of the last year, highlighted their value last night, pointing to their long histories in town and their work helping Framingham residents.

Representatives of seven organizations met with the committee studying social services, answering questions about why they are in town, what would happen if they left, and their work with ex-convicts.

"Our clients are invisible," said Jeanne Ryan of Wayside Youth and Family Support Network.  "They're your neighbors.  They're your family members.  They're not criminals."

The officials said they are meeting needs in the community, whether their clients are disabled, recovering from substance abuse or are low-income, homebound seniors.

It was a message the agencies have emphasized for months as critics complain that Framingham has become burdened by the tax-exempt nonprofits.

"You're all one accident away from being Christopher Reeve and not being able to move or breathe," said Paul Spooner, executive director of the MetroWest Center for Independent Living.

Spooner urged the 10-member committee, which is due to report its findings on social services this spring, to see Framingham as a city with "city issues," not a small town.

When one committee member, Jim Palmer, asked what the impact on the town would be if all the nonprofits left, Spooner said, "It's like saying how would you feel if we cut off your arm."

Last night's meeting was the second in a series of three meetings the PILOT committee is holding.  It recently held a public hearing for people to complain about or support the agencies.  Later this month it plans to meet with town officials about the nonprofits.

Few of the social service organizations responded to a lengthy questionnaire the committee put together, but Chairman Bob Berman said the committee would have met with the agencies anyway.

"We feel like we're really broadening the input," he said.

Committee member Cynthia Laurora pressed the agencies for information about their work with people who have criminal backgrounds, saying the committee was looking into "the relationship between crime on our streets...and possibly agencies working with the criminal justice system."

That question prompted Ryan's response that Wayside's clients are not criminals.  SMOC has housing programs as part of contracts with the Department of Correction and the Parole Board.

The committee is charged in part with researching a program for payments in lieu of taxes from the agencies.  Those payments came up during a discussion about how the nonprofits struggle to stay in business.

Wayside relies on fund-raisers to supplement its budget, said president and CEO Eric Masi, and those donors are giving money to support programs, not provide payments in lieu of taxes.

Masi also pointed to Wayside’s history in Framingham, starting in 1977, according to its Web site, by a group of people who started a home for runaway and homeless youth.  SMOC, meanwhile, was started in the mid-1960s by Framingham residents who responded to President Lyndon Johnson's call for a war on poverty.

"The fact we're here at all and have been here for years is a testament that we're serving an important need," Masi said.

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