NORWALK, Conn. – Unreasonable is the right word in reference to bookkeeping at South Norwalk’s anti-poverty agency, but you have to put that in context, NEON interim CEO and president Pat Wilson Pheanious said.
Pheanious, who has just over a week left in her contract with Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), was explaining comments she made at the agency’s last board meeting and responding to a letter to the editor written by Susan Wallerstein. As she gets closer to becoming a private citizen she is becoming more willing to speak her mind bluntly, as it won’t be coming from the voice of NEON, she said.
“I guess I lost my temper a little bit because he ought to know better by now,” she said of board member Alan Rossi, who repeatedly demanded “reports of the financial situation of the corporation.”
The comment she was explaining was, “What you’re asking for is a perfectly reasonable response, it’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it’s not a reasonable situation that we have been in. This is an agency that operated off of not even balance sheets and income statements for years. The information that has been provided by this team, as inadequate as it looks to you, is the best information that has come out of this agency.”
Rossi doesn’t understand what he is dealing with, she said, as he is coming to NEON from a high level of the business world.
“Generally speaking you’re dealing with a less sophisticated financial system and people with less sophisticated financial expertise,” she said.
In 47 years of operation, nobody at NEON had ever done a cash flow record until she got there, she said.
“Their record keeping and the way they handled and explained or didn’t explain their financial situation was not up to par and hadn’t been for years,” she said.
It’s therefore impossible to make financial projections at this point because the records only go back 18 months, she said. You need a history to make projections, and none was kept.
As DSS (Department of Social Services) commissioner, she was responsible for sternly reprimanding and penalizing agencies with poor record keeping, she said. Now she answers questions from auditors, trying to explain an irrational situation rationally.
“I feel like a fool,” she said.
But some community level non-profits began as mom and pop operations, she said, and over the years grew into multi-million dollar organizations, still running like a mom and pop.
“NEON is not the only one,” she said. “NEON is just the one that is under scrutiny at the moment.”
NEON runs on three or four separate fiscal years simultaneously, she said, as federal grants and state grants are run differently. Money comes in erratically, and paperwork is challenging. The result is non-profit agencies run on heart instead of head, she said.
“Non-profits that work with the state are always supplying services before they sign the contract because if you wait for the contract you would never be able to perform the services,” she said. “The biggest crime of non-profits is that they’re always helping. They’re trying to do right, they’re trying to help people. Sometimes they skip appropriate steps, and sometimes they get in trouble, and they should get in trouble. But they’re always stretching the envelope in order to serve.”
NEON staff members have only been working for 18 months to fix an agency with nearly five decades of history, she said. Rossi should know better, as she’s explained it to him, she said.
“A lot of people who don’t have non-profit experience or community action experience don’t understand how the dollars are blended, how you can have one or two employees working under two or three contracts,” she said. “When it comes time to lay somebody off, it’s not as simple to say, ‘OK, we need to lose three people, chop them off.’ Because you can’t chop people into thirds. It’s just not as simple as it looks.”
Some of Wallerstein’s letter was downright untrue, she said.
At a recent board meeting, Ernie Dumas of A Better South Norwalk said board members had been required to have college degrees, thereby leaving out many South Norwalk residents. That got into the press.
It isn’t true, Pheanious said.
The NEON board recruitment packet dated Nov. 15, 2012 (attached below) does not list a college degree among the qualifications that potential board members must have.
Pheanious said she thinks Wallerstein was referring to the reporting of Dumas’ comments when Wallerstein asked, “Why were there more requirements for NEON board members than for the person the Board approved to serve as Acting President & CEO?”
That’s in reference to Chiquita Stephenson, and news reports calling Stephenson’s college degree into question. Stephenson’s resume includes an associate’s degree from Norwalk Community College, but she has been able to produce it.
Wallerstein asked, “Why after several months hasn’t this person been able to present official proof that she has earned the associate’s degree claimed on her resume?”
Pheanious pointed out that NCC gave Stephenson a distinguished alumni award in 2011. She said she has reason to believe that Stephenson has the degree.
“I understand some of the technicalities of what may have happened and it may eventually get straightened out,” she said. “It could be more about somebody not doing something – but it wasn’t Chiquita – somebody not following up with something to record something correctly.”
Wallerstein also criticized Pheanious’ plan to create a NEON University after she leaves her position, working as a volunteer.
“Why did most Board members agree to allow the current Interim CEO to continue as a volunteer to work on a new online employee education program when it is having difficulty running its current programs and services?” Wallerstein asked. “Isn’t this something NEON might collaborate or partner with others on if it’s really needed?”
The university is Pheanious’ pet project.
“What difference does it make to her? What I’m doing I’m doing for free,” Pheanious asked.
Pheanious said recently that coming to Norwalk to right NEON is the hardest job she’s ever had. She added that it is thankless.
“Norwalk has more snakes in the grass than I have ever encountered in my life,” she said. “Inside and outside of the agency, inside City Hall, they’re all over the place. A lot of the difficulty stems from people responding to a dysfunctional environment. Norwalk is dysfunctional in my opinion.”