State auditor wants expanded oversight on DOR commercial tax credit administration

State auditor wants expanded oversight on DOR commercial tax credit administration

By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- The state's public money watchdog is pushing for access to business tax returns to prevent waste, fraud or abuse of certain tax breaks for companies from the Berkshires to Cape Cod.

"The first question is, do we need an emergency shelter or not?" Mary McGinnis, the city's director of Administrative Services, asked the group of about 15 in City Council chambers.

The consensus that emerged from the human service providers, police, religious, medical and city government representatives was that 20 or more homeless people per night during wintry weather will need a place to stay overnight.

Berkshire Co-Act Executive Director Paul Deslauriers, who oversaw an emergency cot shelter last winter at the Salvation Army on West Street, said the average number staying there was 14 over the four months the shelter operated. But he added that 22 to 25 people stayed on colder nights -- including a high of 36, which required finding other locations to handle the overflow.

The Salvation Army is not available for that purpose this winter, and local officials have been scrambling to find an alternative since a proposed site on Fenn Street in a Brien Center-owned building was eliminated three weeks ago because of building code issues that would be costly or difficult to address.

Police Chief Michael J. Wynn said police "get shelter calls every night of the year."

The chief and others confirmed some of the locations where people are routinely seen attempting to camp or find shelter, including behind the Wahconah Park scoreboard, across the Housatonic River in that location, in Clapp Park and sometimes in Springside Park.

Homeless people often try to enter construction sites or vacant properties, Wynn said.

He added that last winter, with the cot shelter operating from December to April, "was the best year we've had in terms of options" for those police find sleeping outside.

Concerning long-term solutions, Jack Downing, CEO at Soldier On, and Jay Sacchetti, vice president of shelter and housing services in Berkshire County for ServiceNet, both stressed the need to have trained workers register each person seeking shelter as the first step in the process.

A chronic problem dealing with the homeless in Pittsfield, Downing said, "is we have a very fractured system," with several well-intentioned organizations working somewhat independently. Funding from the state or other sources is based on accurate statistics on homeless clients being entered properly in approved data banks, reflecting the actual need, he said.

Sacchetti, whose organization took over operation of Barton's Crossing and other longer-term Berkshire County shelters in June, said ServiceNet has a system in the Pioneer Valley that does collect data from clients and provides a level of health care and other services, all aimed at helping individuals overcome problems and acquire permanent housing.

On average, he said, "about 10 percent of the people are taking 80 percent of the services," in other words coming back repeatedly to shelters. The goal should be to help them break that cycle, he said.

Downing, whose organization cooperates with ServiceNet to deliver transportation and other services in the Pioneer Valley, said having all homeless clients register first at Barton's Crossing would allow collection of the data required to receive additional funding.

Gina Armstrong, the city's health department director, said a task force could be created to study the issue long-term, "but we also need the short-term. There is not a lot of time."

Sacchetti said Barton's Crossing could accomodate 10 more people this winter, but the staff would have to be increased. That extra staffing cost was estimated at from $80,000 to $100,000."

Downing said Soldier On would cooperate by providing transportation and taking additional homeless people that could not be housed at Barton's Crossing.

Meanwhile, Deslauriers and others have sought a building that could house another cot shelter this winter, but safety and other state code regulations have made that difficuilt. One building being considered is the former Catholic Youth Center on Melville Street, but the Rev. Quentin Chin of First Baptist Church said no word on its possible use has come back from the Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

No matter the site, state code regulations, which were tightened up further in January, could pose hurdles. "The code is pretty rigid," City Building Commissioner Gerald Garner told the group.

There are requirements for fire safety and access, and although buildings operated for primarily religious purposes can receive a temporary permit for up to 52 days, that would not cover the entire winter and fire safety alarm equipment would still be required.

Deslauriers said shelters like the one operated last year with mostly volunteer help would be much more cost-effective than other options. He said the cot shelter operated for four months at a cost of $10,000 in donated space at the Salvation Army.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, also attended the meeting. They said they would explore the availability of state funding this year but added that concrete, specific proposals from the community are more likely to receive funds.

Posted on 5 Nov 2013, 8:58 - Category: News

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