NORWALK, Conn. – Things have improved at a sprawling South Norwalk-based anti-poverty agency, according to two former board members, who say they remain skeptical that enough has been done.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) and Susan Weinberger were among the exodus last week of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) board members following the appointment of Chiquita Stephenson as interim CEO and president of the embattled and cash-strapped agency. On Thursday, they offered their opinions of a financial report released at Wednesday night’s NEON board meeting, which new NEON board Chairman Mike Berkhoff described as clearer than before.
Both cited a lack of financial management and need for change in top management as they left.
NancyOnNorwalk asked Steinberg and Weinberg to comment on the information released Wednesday night, and both said it was a step in the right direction.
“It certainly is an improvement over anything offered to the board members during the past six months, Weinberger said in an email. “We have been clamoring for details that ended with excuses. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic.
“Specific details on each vendor owed, how much and for what services over how many months and what promises have been made and not kept to these vital providers (e.g. legal fees for one of the firms totaling more than $300,000) would be helpful in order to understand the larger picture.
“The same applies to the need for more details regarding grant programs. I notice that drawdowns for funding in the Head Start program are done quarterly and only after expenses have been incurred. How soon after an expense has been incurred with submission of proper back up information do the funds get deposited in the Head Start local account? All this needs to be forthcoming.”
Weinberger also wondered how much would be saved through layoffs and salary cuts.
“Who is getting laid off at what salary?” she asked. “Is the management team going to take a reduction in salary in order to help reduce the deficit?
“I suggest that the plans to close the shortfall gap should be shared with the city and the community on a regular basis.That kind to transparency has been sorely lacking with the agency since March when the new board was appointed. If NEON is going to succeed, integrity and transparency will be the first order of business.The buck stops with NEON. It needs to accept the blame. As stated in my resignation letter, a wholesale change in management is the key to the agency’s survival.”
Steinberg gave the information a positive review, but still had questions.
“It’s the best document I’ve seen from NEON Management so far. I particularly like the initial commentary on financials, which frequently was very sketchy or misleading in the past,” he said.
“I think it’s great that they’re producing better-looking documents, if they’re to attract any new funding. I actually am inclined to believe that the stated amount due unpaid vendors may be close to reality. However, we previously saw presentations which put the deficit much higher ($2-3 million). I don’t understand how it suddenly came down to $1.3 million by itself unless the previous numbers were seriously erroneous. I tend to doubt it.
“It still doesn’t quite answer the cash flow issues or how NEON will avoid another payroll crisis in less than two weeks, let alone any other crises in providing services because vendors will no longer supply NEON. Perhaps that has been addressed, but I don’t see that in what was supplied.”
Steinberg questioned what the plan is for moving forward, and cast doubt on NEON’s ability to deal with the likely loss of its Head Start program.
“I’m most curious about the announcement I saw in The Hour (Oct. 9) about two plans to close the $1.3 million gap. That’s what we were looking for from Management for some time. Accompanying any such plan should be a timetable which addresses key revenue and expense milestones. I also expect that it should recognize that it’s unlikely NEON will retain the Head Start contract beyond the end of the year, if that long. It’s a huge source of NEON revenue, which only complicates efforts to balance the budget.
“It sounds like Plan A depends on significant fundraising contributions. We’ve had lots of talk about this in the past, but nothing tangible. Perhaps with Mike Berkoff in charge, the funds will begin to flow. It needs to be soon.”