Services not wanted Sunday, July 16, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
Framingham officials have a simple message for social service agencies who have made the town their home: go someplace else.

Selectmen Chairman Dennis Giombetti has called for local agencies to spread to other communities around Framingham, and officials in those towns, he says, should "embrace" the new programs.

"I really think Framingham has demonstrated a social responsibility to help people, and the other communities, I think, need to take on an equal share of that social responsibility," he said.

Giombetti's comments signal a new push from the town's highest elected board to force social service agencies to move programs to other communities, something critics of the nonprofits have long demanded.

According to a May report compiled by the PILOT committee, Framingham is home to far more social service sites than its neighbors.  It has 244 sites, from group homes to office buildings.  Of the contiguous communities, Marlborough has the second highest at 34.

Even measured by per capita, Framingham outpaces its neighbors, according to the report, with 3.6 sites per 1,000 people.  All the others have less than one per 1,000 residents.

During an editorial board meeting with the Daily News earlier this month, Giombetti proposed that for every new social service program in Framingham, one should be built in one of the seven surrounding communities.  Doing so, he argues, will create more "regional balance."

"A partnership needs to be developed between the towns and the agencies," he said.

Giombetti's idea drew mixed reaction from social service officials, who say the concentration of programs isn't as bad as some critics say and that siting decisions are more complex than just picking a town.

Representatives of Framingham's three biggest agencies -- Advocates Inc., SMOC, and Wayside Youth -- said they choose sites based on the requirements of state contracts, the needs of their clients, and whether a property is available, affordable and accessible.

"What we're really doing is think about three to four people at a time and what do they need," said Advocates CEO Bill Taylor.

For the disabled people Advocates serves, whom Taylor described as "the poorest of the poor," that often means dense communities such as Framingham where people can access public transportation and walk to stores.

Wayside Youth and Family Support Network moved a group home for girls from Framingham to Waltham in May, said President Eric Masi, because the agency was getting more referrals from that area.  Forcing families to drive to Framingham to see their daughters, he said, was unfair.

"Sometimes you make those kind of decisions that selectmen are talking about to better serve clients needs as opposed to any arbitrary needs," he said.

Asked to respond to Giombetti's proposal, selectmen from three surrounding towns -- Ashland, Southborough and Sherborn -- were reluctant to comment because no specific program was proposed for their community or because they were unfamiliar with the siting of social service programs.

"If someone came to Ashland and they went through the process and they got the permit to put the facility in, no, I wouldn't have a problem with it," said Ashland selectmen Chairman Paul Monaco.

Southborough chairman Roger Challen said he believed in "the principle of sharing the burden."

"From the aspect of sharing the load, to the degree that it's a load, I think people ought to do that," he said.

Sherborn selectmen Chairman James Murphy said his town would consider any project, but he pointed to several reasons why Sherborn may not be the best location: the high cost of land, no town water or sewer system, which restricts building sizes, and no full-time Fire Department.

Still, Murphy noted that all communities are subject to the Dover Amendment, a state law that makes social service programs with an educational component virtually unstoppable.

Wayside once considered building its residential campus facility, now slated for Lockland Avenue in Framingham, on a 12-acre parcel in Sherborn.  But Masi said the landowner would not sell.

"We were not wedded to Framingham," he said.

That's a common argument among social service officials, who say they own or lease property in many communities.  According to information provided by the agencies, Advocates and Wayside have about a third of their properties in Framingham.  SMOC has about 40 percent of its buildings in town, according to the agency.

The PILOT committee's findings on the total number of social service sites in Framingham also drew fire from SMOC Planning Director Jerry Desilets.  He called the figure "misleading" because it includes taxed properties such as offices, which have "little or no impact."

Desilets also argues the total number of SMOC properties included in the report is wrong, but that's because he and the committee are counting differently. At two SMOC buildings on South Street, for example, the PILOT committee counted each unit in them -- a total of 45 condos -- as a social service site, or 45 sites.

Committee member Laurie Lee, who compiled the report for the committee's majority faction, defended that practice, saying it met the criteria adopted by the committee to make comparisons to other communities.  Indexes to the report, also provide breakdowns of residential and commercial buildings and whether they are taxed or tax-exempt.

"We are looking for what Framingham is housing.  What do we have?" she said.  "It's a separate question from what pays taxes and what doesn't."

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