PILOT report: Close wet shelter Friday, April 28, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- The town should try to close the wet shelter downtown and negotiate payments in lieu of taxes with social service agencies because the agencies have had "a substantial impact" on the town, according to a study committee's draft report.

The PILOT committee’s 73-page report outlines significant growth in the number of social service sites during the last 16 years and makes a number of recommendations.  Town Meeting formed the committee a year ago to study the growth and effects of the agencies.

Social services jack up school costs by $2.5 million, serve mostly people from outside Framingham, including ex-convicts, and create more work for police and firefighters, the report finds.  It also ties the agencies to sluggish property values and thousands of low-to-moderate income residents who have moved here.

"At times, it has been necessary to focus on the facts and to set aside our personal opinions and emotions that may influence out judgment," the report states.  "Through this process, we have learned of wonderful programs that we are proud to have in Framingham.  We have also learned of others that disturb us."

The committee, however, remains divided over the report.  In March, when the group released preliminary findings, four members slammed the data, arguing much of it was irrelevant to their charge and supported preconceived notions about social services.

Nearly a month later, the committee remains divided.  Chairman Bob Berman, one of the four members, said the same group would "probably" release a minority report.  Wes Ritchie went further, saying they "definitely" would.  He called the draft report "deliberately misleading."

While Ritchie sees some good information in the report, he called the section on education costs "outrageous" and said it was not approved by the full committee.  The committee had meetings scheduled for last night and Monday to discuss the report.

"I believe this is deliberately misleading.  I think it’s partially complete.  I think it overextends our charge," he said.

According to the report, 155 students who live at social service sites or are classified as homeless cost the town $2.5 million, which includes school expenditures and other indirect costs.  Laurie Lee, who compiled the report, said there are "questions about that number" that she hoped to clarify at last night’s meeting.

Committee member Steve Orr called the minority group "obstructionists" who have not contributed any data to the report.

"We are not doing anything that is based on emotion.  We are working off hard solid data that was exhausting to acquire," he said.  The report, he continued, "is really important to all communities that are impacted the same way Framingham is being impacted."

The report calls for creating a new position in town government -- a human service director or social policy director -- that would act as an advocate for the town in the state’s social service delivery system.  The position would report to the town manager and be responsible for overseeing social service sites and acting as a liaison to the nonprofits.

Whatever title the position takes, "from the extent of the growth that has occurred in Framingham during the past 15 years, this position is needed and justifiable," the report states.

The committee also recommends the town use its regulatory power to close the wet shelter on Irving Street or "strictly enforce the laws that apply to it."  Many communities, according to the report, use local licenses, permits and other codes to oversee social services.

SMOC, the agency that runs the shelter, dismissed the idea of shutting it down.  Planning Director Jerry Desilets said SMOC would like to close its doors, but only if there were appropriate places for their clients to live.  Otherwise, they will be living on the street.

"It’s an attractive solution to some, but in a sense, it's not really going to resolve any issues.  There are people who are going to be living in the environment in downtown Framingham whether or not there is a wet shelter," he said.

The report also recommends that the town's assessor work with social service agencies to negotiate payments in lieu of taxes.  The agencies will be exempt from paying almost $663,000 in property taxes next fiscal year.

"We trust that at this point in time the agencies that have benefited from the goodwill and kindness of the citizens and government of Framingham will recognize our value and our service to them, and will support this program in the spirit of fairness and recognition that a good relationship is in their best interests," the report states.

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