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Norwalk Council greenlights deal with new/old SoNoCC

Common Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B), at a recent Personnel Committee meeting.

Updated, 1:25 p.m.: Comments from Warren Penã and Thomas Livingston; 6:19 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. — Hard feelings remain for one South Norwalk Common Council member, even after a lengthy discussion behind closed doors Tuesday, as the City moves forward with buying back half of 98 South Main St.

The Council voted 13-2 Tuesday to go forward with paying the new South Norwalk Community Center Board $300,000 for its half of the former “NEON building.”  The deal also includes allocating $200,000 for building repairs.

Construction of the South Norwalk building was funded with $1 million of grants obtained by the City in the 1980s.  Ownership of the property was transferred to social service agencies Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) and SoNoCC in 1987, with each agency owning half the building.  If either agency stopped providing social services, its half was to revert to city ownership.

NEON has gone bankrupt and the City owns that half now.  Critics of the deal to purchase SoNoCC’s half have questioned why the City needs to pay amid questions about whether SoNoCC is providing any services.

“Is it a buy out? Or a gift?” Ernie Dumas (D-District B) asked in a midnight phone call.

Council members met in executive session for nearly an hour and said nearly nothing in public before approving the deal, with the only comments coming from Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E).

Livingston: City can’t ‘afford to wait’

“There’s a suggestion that we wait, if you will, until the South Norwalk Community Center Inc is in the same situation as NEON was,” Livingston said, referring to bankruptcy. “I think that is not a realistic approach.”

A bankruptcy court would take years and the building is deteriorating, he said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait.”

“I think the current situation is untenable. We have a deteriorating asset,” Livingston said. “The City has one-half ownership and 100 percent ownership of any problems that come about. I think that’s not a situation that can work for the city and subjects us to a lot of potential liabilities.”

The purchase and repairs would be funded from the $3.5 million paid by mall developer GGP to the City this year in exchange for permission to eliminate a hotel from plans for The SoNo Collection.

The agreement also calls for a newly constituted 11-member SoNoCC Board of Directors. Livingston announced that the deal would not be completed until the City’s legal department determines that the new Board is “fully constituted and in place” and “receives a good standing certificate, evidencing that South Norwalk Community Center Inc is an active business.”

Dumas, Simms oppose deal

A South Norwalk faction has opposed the purchase, with Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) and Dumas in July releasing an opinion piece asking, among other things, how the South Norwalk Community Center would use the $300,000.

Simms and Dumas were the only Council members to vote against the deal Tuesday.

Dumas, who was appointed to the Council in June as a replacement for Faye Bowman, on Sunday sent a letter to his fellow Council members asking questions about the deal, questions he said Tuesday were derived through researching Redevelopment Agency documents with District B Democratic leader Bobby Burgess and others:

  • “Who was employed by SNCC after NEON dissolved?
  • “What programs were operated out of the building for the community?
  • “How much income was generated from the following: rental of the multi-purpose room, ABCD, AmeriCares, Sunday Church Services, BOE programs/activities, etc.?
  • “Utilities and associated costs to keep the building open for the last three years?
  • “Type and total of funding received for capital improvements to the building for the benefit of SNCC?
  • “What was SNCC’s annual operating budget?
  • “View 990 Form filed with federal government.”

Concerns re South Norwalk Community Center (3)

Dumas said at midnight that the only question he got answered was about the 990, a form that 501c3 nonprofits must file with the federal government.

The most recent 990 is from 2015, he said.

The South Norwalk Community Center’s total revenue in 2013 was $66,397, $299,183 in 2014 and $159,890 in 2015, according to the only 990s NancyOnNorwalk could find online.

SoNoCC 2014 990

SoNoCC 2015 990

 

“As far as I am concerned, South Norwalk Community Center should have a forensic audit,” Dumas said, asserting that Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola described the deal as a “buyout.”

Burgess had earlier spoken to the Council, asserting, “If they don’t have a 990 filing that means they’re obsolete.”

Burgess, who founded NEON, mentioned Dumas’ questions and said they were the same questions that NEON faced.

“I want to make sure that one agency is not treated differently than the other and also in the agreement, if they cease to operate programs, they become null and void just like NEON. I want to make sure there’s no double standard,” Burgess said.

John Mosby, former NEON Board member, said, “I get sick and tired of everybody talking about what NEON did,” and said the community should have a voice in who is on the new SoNoCC Board.

Board members are being selected by an assortment of community agencies, including the Norwalk Branch NAACP,  the Greater Norwalk Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Norwalk area Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Mayor and Common Council.

South Norwalk Democratic leader Darlene Young has been appointed, Dumas said; Esther Murillo has also been appointed, Council members said on Aug. 14.

Lauricella: SoNoCC doesn’t appear viable

Diane Lauricella also spoke to the Council, calling the current South Norwalk Community Center “a 501c3 that doesn’t appear to be viable.”

“The paperwork partially is in but they did not function and it can be proven, the city would have the right to take over the building, according to my research,” she said, suggesting that the $300,000 be used to create a new social services agency.

Mayor Harry Rilling replied that the City is creating “a totally new agency.”

“They are saying two-three different things,” Dumas said in the midnight phone call with NancyOnNorwalk. “They are saying the $300K is going to the new Board. If it’s going to the new Board, what other money are you going to have to pay South Norwalk Community Center?”

He asked why SoNoCC would be kept going when NEON went under, and said, “The chairperson of the South Norwalk community center just got a free ride.”

“I’m not sure how to interpret that,” SoNoCC Board Chairman Warren Penã said in Wednesday email. “A free ride to the chairperson would constitute that I personally am benefiting somehow, which is clearly and obviously not the case.”

Members of Mount Zion Church have asked to buy SoNoCC’s half of 98 South Main, right next to their church, but they got the runaround, Dumas said Tuesday night.  He questioned how it could be a buyout if SoNoCC stays in the building.

Under the deal, SoNoCC will lease 700 square feet of office space.

“If you’re saying buyout, that means they’re gone. So what is it?  A buyout or a gift? That’s all I want to know, because it seems like a gift. Because they are still in the building,” Dumas said. “…NEON had to go through those same things and those people had to leave, and bankruptcy. South Norwalk Community Center has not produced a program at all.”

The South Norwalk Community Center owes $45,000 in utility bills, he said, asking, “Where does South Norwalk Community Center get the money from?”

Income was derived from rentals of the multi-purpose room, which was sometimes paid in cash, he said.

The 990s show program service revenue of $60,660 in 2013, $80,765 in 2014 and $155,460 in 2015.

SoNoCC’s lease has to be negotiated and returned to the Council for approval, Livingston said.

“This is essentially a new entity,” Livingston said. “It has the same name, it is the same legal entity, but it has an entirely new Board. Nobody from the existing Board will be serving on this and so it’s … the same entity but it’s different… A different name has been suggested but this is an entirely different group of people running the operation.”

Livingston, Simms, and Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King did not answer a late-night request for comment following Dumas’s midnight remarks.

Livingston on Wednesday wrote:

“The payment was a negotiated purchase of SNCC’s interest in the property. It was not a gift. SNCC has made it clear that they do not believe that they are in the same position as NEON was and would fight any attempt by the City to try to take their interest pursuit to the ‘reverter clause’ in the original deed. If the City pursued this approach in court, it could potentially take years and cost a lot of money, with no guarantee of success. During this time, we would continue to have a half interest in a deteriorating asset, subject to all of the risks and liabilities associated with that ownership, yet not be able to fully utilize the building to provide needed services to the community.

“I can’t speak to the $45,000 figure, but there may be a minor offset to the purchase price for expenses incurred by the City on NFCC’s  {Norwalk Facility Construction Commission’s} behalf. That reconciliation will involve looking at revenues received by NFCC. BTW, we have been advised that some of NFCC’s more recent expenses were due to the actions or requests of the City.

“…It is, in effect, a new organization with a mission to provide services to the community, which is, after all, what this is all about.”

Penã on Wednesday wrote:

“I am happy that finally we have moved beyond the bankruptcy and have sold our interest in the building.
“The City is in a much better position to manage the building and take care of the necessary upgrades.
“We have done what we can over the years with limited resources.

“This real estate transaction will put SoNoCC in a much better position to focus on its mission to serve people.
“I’m excited to meet with potential new board members and look forward to leaving the Center in a much better position than when I took over as Chair.”

7 comments

Rick August 29, 2018 at 8:54 am

only question that would be worth asking now is , when will the building and lot be checked for PCBs and other contaminants found at the foundation of the South Mains building.

Not one agency board or even Mayors office have the final reports of Ryan park but Grabbo has done the back parking lot with new lights drains and hardtop.

Its too late if the final reports from the RDA suggest the above lot is dirty isn’t it?

The State has no record of any testing core samples or reports that assure the city the NEON lot is clean.What was found was a active plume of contamination in the water table 3 feet below the surface of Ryan Park.

The cities hand picked Environmental company reported no evidence showed the NEON lot was dirty by records no drilling no real attempt to prove it was clean.

Nothing was done outside of Ryan park just ask the RDA, once again when the RDA is involved who do you trust.

MJ Sandy Schmitt August 29, 2018 at 10:00 am

How the Counsel do all these business on closed doors? Isn’t our money that they are using? We the people should participate on these closed doors meeting before they take those decisions. They are using our tax money. So, we have all the rights by law to see what are they doing. Something is smelling in Denmark! They me Mr. Mayor are you doing it again? I mean you decided everything behind closed door.

Ms. Mawd August 29, 2018 at 3:15 pm

No one and no two organization should be paid out of these fund, If the council is in a rush to provide services in this building and not wait and do a forensic audit then it will not last either and redevelopment and the other gentleman Clay will probably have it. Also if it’s to benefit the community as a whole, then one organization (city ) should run it and hire people from the community in all nationality, Not look like its just serving Latinos or African American,etc, but all. Youth service and recreational inside the building for evening events.

Rick August 29, 2018 at 6:55 pm

When I talk GE i think of Pittsfeild Mass where they had a car wash for items big that had PCBs splashed on them from exploding transformers on cars or parts to the production and making PCBs in kettle houses that made products like pyranol a favorite of GE.

https://www.epa.gov/ge-housatonic/ge-plant-area-ge-pittsfieldhousatonic-river-site

When I think Norwalk i think about the tanks on the Norwalk river next to Sono Seafood on water at that held PCBs for GE for local production they would come up the river and drop product into the tank farm.

Now to suggest like most have said NEON was once a car wash so close to the GE PCB storage facility and having an Nash Engineering where the Sono Rink is now that specialized in moving PCBs with the pumps they made was coincidental it would be wrong to try and connect that to contamination in Ryan park.

https://www.gardnerdenver.com/en/nash/about-us/history

But both have left Norwalk and the city did hire an expert to research not test NEON how could the city be wrong it would defy Democratic logic.

The sixty minute news source did a great article what the experts didn’t do and find at NEON it does however defy what the EPA found in Ryan park.

It would be wrong to suggest the council did not use diligence in making decisions with informed data to prove any connection to where the pcbs came from. Most of them are lawyers or have expertise in large companies they are a strong unstoppable Democratic team we can be so thankful of their service.

So if the city(the two mayors want something) then it must be ok.

Mike Mushak August 30, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Im looking forward to having a real vibrant community center in SoNo again! Ever since NEON was run into the ground through apparently incompetent management, we have missed a vibrant social service organization here in SoNo where I live and work.

Even though I enjoy God’s blessings of not needing any social programs to survive, that is not true of many of my friends and neighbors who are faced with challenges such as disabilities, illness, or are healthy and working hard every day and yet still struggling to survive. They are the folks who really rely on the SoNo Community Center for help, besides all the other great programs they will do there.

Rick August 30, 2018 at 7:04 pm

Whats happening to those in the Village is also a shame , with disabilities, illness, are just why some of us uncovered the living conditions no one deserves to be treated like that.

Right now the vibrant community is having a homeless problem children are included we know what we need now all we need is help from the city , from the sounds of it they are a long way to open the doors, until then a Norwalk moment is not what we want.

Cant help thinking its all been done before the election, those who are hurting are not getting help tonight.

I cant help wonder what the two mayors are thinking of?

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