PILOT program: Social agencies aren't required to give money to Framingham Sunday, May 7, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Armed with a new study outlining the toll social service agencies have on Framingham, the town is poised to pursue payments in lieu of taxes from the nonprofits.

But just how successful that effort will be appears in doubt.

The study calls for selectmen to negotiate a PILOT program with the agencies because their impact on the town is "visible and real" and because Framingham is home to a disproportionate share of the services.  The agencies, it states, should participate "in the spirit of fairness."

But such payments are voluntary.  Assessor Mike Flynn, who could lead such talks, said it is difficult to know whether the agencies would be willing to pay because no board of selectmen has ever asked him in 12 years to approach the nonprofits.

"There's no track record to say whether they would or they wouldn't.  I just feel you're never going to find out unless you ask," he said.

Bill Taylor, CEO of Advocates Inc., one of the largest agencies in town, said the organization could not afford payments in lieu of taxes.  A PILOT, he argued, would "diminish service" to its clients.

"Money is very tight.  We're doing our budgets for next year.  We're making some very difficult decisions," he said.  The agency's contracts have not had a cost-of-living increase for nearly 20 years.  "A PILOT would be another cost which would erode that which we do."

But Nick Sanchez, a member of the PILOT committee, rejected that argument, pointing to public records filed by the agencies showing that most of them are not running at a deficit.  Advocates, according to committee records, had net revenue of nearly $4 million last year.

When Flynn, the assessor, worked in Plymouth, he approached a handful of nonprofits about such payments, but they turned him down.

"We tried it.  We didn't get anything.  It doesn't mean we shouldn't try again, though," he said.

The 10-member PILOT committee has released two reports, one by a majority faction and another by a minority group of four that disagrees with a number of findings in the main report.  Instead of just paying money, the minority report states, the agencies should have the option of providing services or programs that benefit the town.

"I would hope that the town would see much of what we do as benefiting the entire community," Taylor said.

When the minority group first raised objections in March following the release of a preliminary report, social service agency SMOC argued the findings lacked credibility because the committee was divided.  Those disagreements remain, and how they will affect implementing recommendations is unclear.

Town Meeting member Bob Cushing, who sits on the board of directors for Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, said the majority had "an agenda to discredit the social service agencies."

"They've pursued that agenda and used a lot of data that goes pretty far afield and I think misused a lot of the data to support their positions," he said.

It is unlikely, Cushing added, that any social service agency can afford payments in lieu of taxes.

"I can't imagine they can find a reasonable basis that agencies like SMOC, Advocates and Wayside are going to make the kind of payment they're apparently considering," he said.

The majority report states it has demonstrated social services have "a substantial impact" on the town.  It expresses hope that the agencies "will support this program in the spirit of fairness and recognition that a good relationship is in their best interests."

Both sides are set to present their reports to Town Meeting on Tuesday.  It was last year in the wake of stinging criticism directed at social services that Town Meeting set up the committee.

Sanchez, a member of the majority, denied he and others skewed the data to support any views about social services.  Such criticism, he said, comes from people "with very vivid imaginations."

"As far as I'm concerned, the data speaks for itself," he said.  "We followed whatever the data said."

The majority and minority agree about many points, including the need for a new position that would act as a liaison between the town and social services and advocate for the town.  But the minority also attacked sections of the main report, describing much of the data as "misleading."

Selectmen are scheduled to hear a presentation by both sides May 15.  Board Chairman Dennis Giombetti said creating a human services coordinator was "a worthwhile avenue to pursue."  He said he could not comment about whether the board would pursue a PILOT program until he reads both reports.

While he said he would have preferred a single report, Giombetti said he was encouraged the two sides shared many positions and findings.

"I think it would be more problematic if the disagreement was across the board," he said.  "My sense is there are more points of agreements than disagreement."

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