Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now officials hope to move beyond the turmoil that has engulfed the anti-poverty agency over the last few weeks.
The state Department of Social Services last Friday placed an "agency at risk" designation on NEON and was assembling a plan to decertify the agency and move programs elsewhere. Then the state Department of Corrections announced it was terminating its contract with NEON to run three halfway houses.
This followed other tumultuous events.
Most of NEON's programs, including the early childhood program Head Start, were shut down Oct. 7-8 after the beleaguered social service agency failed to make payroll the previous Friday. With money from DSS, staff was paid by Oct. 8 and things returned to close to normal Oct. 9. "Close," as 48 employees learned they would be cut from five-day employees to four.
At the Oct. 9 board meeting, it was revealed the $2.5 million in cuts had been made in the annual budget -- with $819,450 savings this year -- and that communities in the service area, including Norwalk, would have to help fund the agency or face the loss of services in their towns. Michael Berkoff, the new board chairman, praised interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson and pointed to improved financial reports that night as reason for optimism.
Berkhoff and Stephenson last Friday issued a press release to announce good news, the addition of two board members to replace some of the six who have recently resigned.
DSS, followed by DOC, fired off their own, much more negative, news releases a short time later.
The DSS statement said the state agency is continuing to provide technical assistance and resources to assist NEON in overcoming its serious fiscal and operational problems, and is placing the agency on a Quality Improvement Plan. However, plans are underway to potentially strip NEON of its certification and move its programs to other agencies.
DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby laid out a series of steps his office is taking immediately, including continuing to get NEON back on track while simultaneously preparing for its possible decertification.
Specifically, DSS is:
- Designating NEON as an "agency in crisis."
- Requiring a series of deliverables (steps) that NEON must fulfill, in accordance with an agreed-upon Quality Improvement Plan. A QIP identifies deficiencies and proposes strategies to address the problems. The first deliverable is due Oct. 31.
- Preparing designation of other entities, instead of NEON, to receive federal Social Services Block Grant and Hispanic Human Development program services funding.
- Preparing legal groundwork toward possible decertification of NEON as a Community Action Agency, if necessary, while reviewing steps that would certify other groups to receive federal Community Services Block Grant funding;
- Preparing for another entity to handle vendor payments for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program.
- Issuing a comprehensive audit of NEON as of last June 30, with a request for comments from NEON officials within two weeks. The audit was provided to NEON interim executive leadership and board of directors Oct. 8.
In a press release response, Berkoff said he "welcomed the Department of Social Services statement" and the state agency's intention to provide NEON with support in the form of resources and technical assistance "to address long-standing deficiencies that have existed within the agency for a decade or more, as well as the major unanticipated expenses incurred during the merger with Stamford's troubled CTE."
"NEON's board of directors, working with the agency's management team, are implementing plans for the consolidation and elimination of programs and services made necessary by financial constraints, in order to maintain and improve our vital services to the children, families and individuals we serve," Berkoff said in the release.
Then came the Department of Corrections statement that is terminating its contract with NEON to run halfway houses.
DOC "has initiated measures to dissolve a longstanding contract for residential services" with NEON, which "operates a 27-bed male work release program in Norwalk, an 18-bed female work release program in Norwalk, as well as a 20-bed women and children program in Waterbury," the state corrections agency said.
"The lack of contract compliance has a direct effect on community safety, therefore swift action is necessary to ensure the safe supervision of these offenders," said interim DOC Commissioner James Dzurenda in the release. "They will be placed in another facility, so that proper safety protocols are being maintained."
The DOC said the decision "is a result of NEON's inability to meet contract obligations."
The harsh statements from the two state agencies overshadowed Berkoff's enthusiasm about two new NEON boardmates.
Langley, director and senior counsel at Diageo North America, was appointed by state Rep. Bruce Morris, according to the release. Tarzia is a Stamford businessman and the owner of Stamford Toys.
"I believe that Ms. Langley and Mr. Tarzia will bring a positive energy and a new vitality to NEON," Berkoff said. "Going forward I will be focused on bringing other like-minded team players to the NEON organization."
Berkoff also had praise for Stephenson in her interim leadership role. "I also firmly believe that Chiquita Stephenson, NEON's acting CEO and president, who has only been in her new position since September 9, will bring a new energy and respect to the agency as we embark on this exciting new venture and challenge of revitalizing NEON," he said.
"In closing let me make it clear that `nay sayers' need not apply, nor will they be welcome under my administration," Berkoff said in his statement.