The state's role in resolving local social services debate Friday, September 2, 2005
Karen Spilka Framingham Tab
The concentration of social services in Framingham has led to much discussion and debate.

As a community, Framingham is struggling to find the balance between necessary social services and the fiscal impact of properties coming off the tax rolls.

In a scenario requiring increased communication, knowledge, and trust to alleviate apprehensions on both sides, we have much work to do.

I have heard from many individuals who are doing what they can to foster this type of openness and thoughtful discussion and I would like to commend them for their efforts.

Respectful communication is fostered when the facts are on the table and all parties' minds are open.  My hope is, that in my capacity as both your state senator and a member of the community, I can be a resource to help share important information and be a liaison to the state and legislature.  To that end, I want to commend Advocates Inc., a prominent social service provider based in Framingham, for requesting to come before the Board of Selectman in August to discuss existing issues.

I also want to commend the Town government and Town Meeting members for recent proactive endeavors, including the passage of the site review bylaw and the establishment of a PILOT review committee.  Creating more avenues for input for members of the community and town government should help foster dialogue and promote a sense of inclusion and trust.

In thinking about what role the state may play, we must first look at some critical federal policy and laws, particularly the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, all of which directly impact what states and municipalities can and cannot do with respect to balancing social service expansion.

A joint statement by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the topics of group homes, local land use, and the Fair Housing Act makes very clear the federal position that it is unlawful to "utilize land use policies ... that treat groups of persons with disabilities less favorably than groups of non-disabled persons."  Further, the joint statement contends that it is unlawful to "take action against or deny a permit for a home because of the disability of individuals who live or would live there."  Explicit "caps" or quotas have been struck down in federal courts as being in contradiction to these federal laws.

The joint statement by DOJ and HUD does note that a municipality could "offer incentives ... to locate future homes in other neighborhoods" but further noted that "density restrictions are generally inconsistent with the Fair Housing Act."  As we move forward, I will be assessing state laws and policies, with federal laws in mind, to determine how incentives, including voluntary PILOT and others, can be tailored so that the Commonwealth fosters responsible and effective incentives and/or enhanced funding to encourage a balanced pattern of dispersion.  I am currently researching areas to draft legislation to that end.

One of the major policies in effect at the state level which is often at the center of this discussion is Mass General Laws, Chapter 40A, the so-called "Dover Amendment."  The Dover Amendment was passed in the 1950's in part, to protect religious and educational institutions.  Much has changed in Massachusetts since the '50s and it now appears to be the proper time to revisit the Dover Amendment.

While social service agencies should not, and under federal and state laws cannot, be wholly subservient to local planning boards, amending the Dover Amendment to further give municipalities additional opportunities for input and review is an important goal and one that I fully endorse.  As such, I am a strong supporter and co-sponsor of the current Massachusetts Land Use Reform Act (MLURA) legislation to amend the Dover Act (I was a chief sponsor of this bill during my time in the House) within the federal constraints of prohibiting discrimination and offering reasonable accommodation, to enhance and clarify a municipality's authority and facilitate community input.

Additionally, one of the factors that may contribute to a concentration of social service sites is the town's superior transportation options compared to all the surrounding towns, which have virtually no public transportation.  Allowing the MetroWest/Greater Framingham region to get its own Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is a top priority.  If MetroWest had its own RTA, transportation options throughout the area would be increased, further encouraging a more balanced dispersion of social service sites.

Everyone agrees that appropriate services should exist to support those dealing with the challenges of disabilities, substance abuse, or homelessness.  Further, everyone agrees that the work done by the staffs of these social service agencies - the so often under-appreciated workers who perform the day to day hard work of directly helping the client population - is truly admirable.  It is in everyone's best interest to help the disabled be self-sufficient, treat an individual's substance abuse problem and assist a homeless family transition out of homelessness.

Ultimately, we are all neighbors and are all impacted by this important issue.  As we face the potential need to find new social service sites, it is with the hope that folks come to the table with an open mind, respectful of other positions and concerns.  In the meantime, I continue to research possible ways the state and its agencies can foster equitable human service planning and delivery and I sincerely encourage all members of the community to contact my office to share their views and ideas.

Senator Karen E. Spilka represents the 2nd Middlesex & Norfolk district, which includes Framingham.  She is the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Children & Families.

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