RECENT SALE OF 71 STONEHENGE FOR GROUP HOME REVEALS UNDERBELLY OF A HUGE ECONOMIC PROBLEM FOR PITTSFIELD … MEANWHILE, CITY ‘LEADERS’ LOOK ON HELPLESSLY
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, MARCH 13, 2014) — When THE PLANET exposed what was done in the secrecy of proverbial midnight, under the shadow of the piers — no scorning suspensions, no shining in the sun — at 71 Stonehenge Road, we ignited a firestorm of protest and debate. In the end, it will likely signify nothing, since it appears that a group home will be placed in the middle of this upscale residential area in a home that was, only three or so years ago, home of (“Tell ‘em”) Angelo (“Sent You”) Stracuzzi.
That would certainly seem the be the case after a meeting a couple nights ago at BFAIR headquarters in the old Eagle building. Stonehenge residents, BFAIR execs, and several politicians gathered. From what we hear, no fears were assuaged but there was a lot of political Parcheesi played, accent on the “cheesi.” Many riddles, much political use of language, which, as George Orwell wrote more than 60 years ago, tries to make murder respectable and the pure wind seem solid.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Pittsfield has 46 group homes (counting Stonehenge) — not an official count but one that is probably accurate. This doesn’t include a seemingly endless line of non-profit and not-for-profit companies. This sad fact splits into two lugubrious tributaries, one a statement and the other a line of thought. The first is the serious loss of tax revenue as once tax-producing properties get taken off the tax rolls. The second is why Pittsfield has vast numbers of such properties?
Group residencies come in a variety of forms. Arrangements include half-way houses, campus-based homes, emergency-type shelters, self-contained settings, staff-secured settings. These homes are used in a number of social settings such as child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, domestic-abuse situations, and others.
Such homes can be run responsibly with little impact. However, the opposite not only can but does happen. This story by Rudy Miller of the LeHigh Valley Express-Times shows what it can look like when one of these homes “derails:
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Problems with group homes have been cropping up for years, and they’re not going anywhere, according to the Colonial Regional police chief.
Chief Roy Seiple urges residents not to wait until after the fact to call police with concerns. Police need to witness problems in order to take action, he said.
“When stuff happens, they need to call us right away,” Seiple said.
Residents sounded off at recent township supervisors meetings about noise, profanity, alcohol use by staff and too many cars parked at a group home for two autistic men at 4504 Stephanie Drive in Lower Nazareth Township.
Residents may not realize it, but there are probably about 15 group homes in Colonial Regional’s coverage area, Seiple said. The police force covers Lower Nazareth Township, Hanover Township and Bath.
Seiple doesn’t know the exact number because the owners aren’t required to register them.
Staff at some homes in recent years have identified the residents to police as sex offenders. One group home resident broke all his home’s windows. Another resident frequently attacks the staff at a group home in the 6000 block of Hanoverville Road.
“We wrestle with this guy all the time,” Seiple said.
Seiple recognizes the group homes have a legal right to operate in the township. He just wishes the owners would notify police when the homes open, so his staff can be prepared to respond when trouble crops up.
“There are over 15 homes in our jurisdiction and we don’t know where they are,” Seiple said. “They don’t notify us where they are until there is a problem.”
Police can better respond to incidents if they know beforehand that someone has mental health issues or violent tendencies, the chief said.
Resources for Human Development owns the Stephanie Drive home. Company spokesman Kevin Roberts declined comment.
Seiple said police have been called to the Stephanie Drive home six times in the past three weeks for individuals swearing in the presence of children, driving over a neighbor’s septic mound, speeding, setting off fireworks and blowing grass clippings on a neighbor’s property.
All the calls came after the incidents had ended, he said.
“We have no way of knowing whether these things did occur,” Seiple said.
He said he spoke to management at the home on April 30 and May 10.
“They assured us (the problems) would be taken care of,” he said.
Seiple can sympathize with the residents. His officers often deal with group home-related issues. He recalls one time his officers had to track down a man who walked away from a group home.
“We handle everybody else’s problems,” he said. “When it gets to us, nobody can handle it and we have to handle it.”
When a group home resident assaults a staff member, the assault ultimately may not be considered a crime due to the competency of the attacker. Either way, police resources are directed to the matter, Seiple said.
“I don’t like putting our guys in harms way,” Seiple said. “It’s a no win situation for us. Anything we do, we’re the bad guy here.”
His officers often have to ride in the ambulance when someone is committed to a psychiatric facility and fill out commitment paperwork.
“They’re utilizing our services all the time,” Seiple said. “When we have to go there, that distracts from our ability to serve other residents.”
The story has bearing on Pittsfield. Are there or are there not requirements that the city and neighborhood residents be informed in advance if a group home is moving into a locale? What does the law say? Will one or more of our Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council, as the city’s lawmakers, of the mayor, as the city’s chief executive, please settle this question. We won’t hold our breath.
As for the 46 homes reportedly in place already, is that an accurate number? Could there be more than that? Also, how sacred are zoning regulations and the understandings they assume between city and property owner if a non-profit can breeze in and legally break the law? What of equal protection under the law?
These questions feed into a huge question economically because of the staggering loss of tax revenue. Every time a non-profit moves in:
(a) the property’s assessed value is taken off the tax roles.
(b) the assessed values are affected — in the negative, it would appear, in the majority of cases.
Let’s run some hypothetical numbers. To be conservative, let’s give the assessed value of the 46 group homes in Pittsfield $150,000. The house at 71 Stonehenge weighed in at $371,000. We won’t include any of the other multitudes of not-for-profits that have drawn down the city economically, just the group homes.
Forty-six times $150,000 is an assessed value of $6,900,000. Pittsfield’s residential tax rate is $17.15 per thousand and $35.17 for commercial, industrial, and personal property. Let’s assume that the 46 homes are in a mix of residential and commercial zones. That yields an average lost assessment of $26.16 per thousand. That yields lost taxes of $180,504 per year. For the lost of valuation, an assumed 10% would yield $690,000 a year.
Thus, our rough calculation yields an annual loss in tax revenues stemming from group homes to be about $870,000 per year. In a decade, the city loses $8.7 million. The numbers are probably higher, likely topping $10 million.
It’s not a pretty picture, and remember, this figure is just for group homes. It doesn’t include all of the non-profits that operate in the city. This is occurring when the rest of the tax base is shrinking and the mayor shall be calling for more tax dollars because he’s so intent on keeping the gravy train going for a select few. Want names? Start with the Pittsfield School Department.
The question is why so many group homes? The answer appears to be in the “fine print” for all or most of the state grant money the city has received over the past two decades. In return for grant money —which is YOUR MONEY IN THE FIRST PLACE the Commonwealth receives through taxation — the state forces Pittsfield to take the refuse, driftwood, and riff-raff from other communities.
That’s the deal the city’s “leaders” have made in your name, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer.
Our final question is this: How will it end for Pittsfield? With a bang, with citizens storming back and taking over the reigns of government, or with a whimper, with the population aging out and moving away, until the once-proud county seat of the famous, fabulous Berkshires goes belly up?
You tell us.
(THE THREE STOOGES PLAYING CARDS) LARRY (TO MOE): I’ll take two. MOE: You can’t have two, but I’ll give you five. (SLAP!)
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.