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NEON out; SoNoCC and Curtis-led group bidding to take over

NORWALK, Conn. – The door has finally slammed shut on 30-plus years of Norwalk history, as Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) has formally filed for its long-delayed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. There appears to be two groups already looking to gain the status NEON once had as the registered Community Action Program (CAP), also called a Community Action Agency (CAA) for Norwalk and provide the services that are now lacking.

The Rev. Lindsay Curtis, according to accounts, is looking to form a CAP agency through the Department of Social Services. South Norwalk Community Center Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino announced similar intentions.

“In light of the situation with NEON filing Chapter 7 and the announcement that there’s a new CAP agency being presented led by Rev. Curtis, the South Norwalk Community Center has discussed the opportunity and is exploring the possibility of applying for CAP status itself,” Ferrandino said.

Curtis did not return phone calls looking for comment.

NEON and SoNoCC have co-occupied the city-owned building at 98 South Main St. since it was built. Ferrandino said that it is not the understanding of SoNoCC that the building would revert to city ownership.

“We are looking into our legal remedy with outside counsel and are in discussions with Corporation Counsel with the city of Norwalk,” Ferrandino said.

NEON’s formal bankruptcy filing was Tuesday, said the Rev. Tommie Jackson, NEON “transitional” CEO and president. “It was formally established yesterday,” Jackson said. “We were formally in the process of getting all the paperwork together since the beginning of May. It’s a regrettable week.”

Jackson said NEON is expected to appear in front of a federal trustee on July 17 in the United States District Court in Bridgeport.

The bankruptcy has been rumored for months. In late April, a reliable source quoted NEON Board Chairman Mike Berkoff as saying in public that the filing would be May 5.

Asked on Wednesday about the process, Berkoff said, “There was paperwork from the state, decertification. There was cleanup of payroll. There was a lot of paperwork that needed to be put together, especially in accounting and in the HR department.”

The agreement to decertify was drawn up March 27 and signed by Jackson on April 4, according to documents provided by the Department of Social Services (DSS). DSS agreed to provide NEON $109,000, primarily to pay its staff through their last day on the job, according to the documents. Any money that was left over could go to fund winding down the agency. NEON was expected to be decertified by May 16, according to the paperwork.

Decertification agreement 3 27 14

Jackson agreed to sign the paperwork no later than April 2, according to an email provided by DSS.

DSS spokesman David Dearborn said there is a process that will begin shortly to get needed services up and running.

“It’s my understanding that we are planning a request for information (term for requesting interest and capacity of local organizations) for certain services in the region,” he wrote in an email. “However, I don’t believe this would be for a replacement CAA, per se.  We would have to defer comment on specifics at this point, and also about a possible replacement CAA agency.”

Jackson said Wednesday that he is working with Curtis and others to form a new CAP agency. He said other members would not be disclosed until articles of incorporation are filed.

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) said he had no information – he reached out to Jackson last week and heard nothing back, he said – but Mayor Harry Rilling said he was not surprised that both Curtis and SoNoCC are interested in forming a CAP agency.

“The state of Connecticut has to put out a request for proposals. They will select the program they think will most meet the needs of the city of Norwalk and do so in the most effective and efficient manner,” Rilling said. “… There’s room for everybody to be involved and for everybody to pull together and to finally start working together for the betterment of Norwalk and the people who and the services. We have to get rid of this feeling of division that currently exists. There’s no need for it. There’s no room for it and we have to work together. Whatever form that takes, that’s what we have to do. I know that I’ve been speaking with different people from both organizations and I feel that they both have the desire to work to together. Well, now it’s time to put that into action.”

Rilling said Jackson and Berkoff did the best they could with the hand they were dealt.

Berkoff joined the NEON board in July, well after the disaster began. The board Berkoff joined was established in May 2013, replacing the remnants of the board that was in charge when a damning federal audit accused NEON in Jan. 2012 of misspending more than $400,000 of federal money.

“I thought we really could fund this,” Berkoff said. “When I got in I didn’t know how deep this was, how far under we were. It wasn’t until January that we knew how bad it was. The Finance Department was upside down. Monies that were owed to the agency, billings that took place.”

The agency, under interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious, continued to programs that the city of Norwalk, under then-Mayor Richard Moccia, declined to fund. Berkoff has cited the $2.6 million in funding withheld by Moccia as a reason for the agency’s demise.

There was another disaster in November when employee paychecks bounced, under then-interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson. Stephenson was dismissed and Jackson was brought in.

“Rev. Jackson was really a Godsend to us,” Berkoff said. “When he came in he was able to get in there and start sorting through. We had nobody else on staff that was able or that could have gone in and taken this over that actually knew the business and how to work around the CAP agency criteria. … I thought it was a good cause, I really thought we were going to be able to save it. But it was so far gone. We started looking, it’s 2 million, it’s 3 million, it’s 4 million under water. I mean, it was just impossible.”

Jackson first mentioned bankruptcy in public at the Dec. 19 board meeting.

“It was inconceivable to me that anything other than bankruptcy,” Jackson said Wednesday. “The reason it was inconceivable was because the debt was so overwhelming. There was $4 million in debt and less than 10 percent of that in assets. That just strikes me as something that never works out.”

He credited Berkoff and board members Jack O’Dea, Terry Adams and Cynthia Bowser for hanging in there until the end to keep the programs going as long as possible.

“I wish that things had been better going into NEON and I wish that we would have been able to NEON earlier,” Jackson said. “I think that if we had gone into NEON earlier we could have made a much more positive difference than we made. We were brought in at the 11th hour. …You can’t always get a sinking ship out of the water at the 11th hour. … Mr. Berkoff and I like to say we were able to bring the ship back to shore but we lost some cargo and some passengers.”

Comments

9 responses to “NEON out; SoNoCC and Curtis-led group bidding to take over”

  1. The Norwalker

    I think that what Tommie Jackson should be remembered for is for not taking NEON’s offsite programs that were running below budget and transferring them to Organizations that would not suck those viable program funds into that bottomless pit called NEON.

    A lot of the State Funded Programs that closed under Jackson’s leadership could have survived under the management of different Parent Organizations!

  2. Let’s Be Honest!

    New agency? Same players. Sounds like “same old same old” to me. Only solution is a totally new entity that is neutral, fair and understands the needs of all Norwalk regardless of race.

  3. Casey Smith

    They have spun this out far longer than expected. I fully expect them to continue in the same manner right up to and possibly beyond their July 17th court date. It’s the same old, same old.
    .
    “Berkoff has cited the $2.6 million in funding withheld by Moccia as a reason for the agency’s demise.”
    .
    And Mr. Berkoff goes right back to the old chorus of “It ain’t my fault, it’s his…” . No, Mr. Berkoff, any fiscal mismanagement was on the part of NEON.
    .
    “Jackson agreed to sign the paperwork no later than April 2, according to an email provided by DSS.”
    .
    “The agreement to decertify was drawn up March 27 and signed by Jackson on April 4, according to documents provided by the Department of Social Services (DSS). DSS agreed to provide NEON $109,000, primarily to pay its staff through their last day on the job, according to the documents. ”
    .
    Jackson and & NEON couldn’t even manage to sign the decertification papers on time as Rev. Jackson agreed they would.
    .
    Jackson said Wednesday that he is working with Curtis and others to form a new CAP agency. He said other members would not be disclosed until articles of incorporation are filed.
    .
    That statement made my blood run cold. No, no, no, no, NO!!!!!!!
    .
    Rev. Curtis, you would be doing yourself and the community you serve a BIG favor by running as fast as your legs can carry you in the other direction from Rev. Jackson. Look at his comment, “Mr. Berkoff and I like to say we were able to bring the ship back to shore but we lost some cargo and some passengers,” and ask yourself how many families were strongly impacted when the Head Start program imploded? NHA stepped nimbly into the gap, God bless ’em, but a whole group of staff had bouncing paychecks, and a whole group of families lost their daycare without warning. And what about those people who need fuel assistance this past winter? Since NEON served the surrounding area, it wasn’t just limited South Norwalk, or any other part of Norwalk that felt the impact in a physical way.

  4. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    These same players been in the game since the beginning of time. Watch who are the players that’s in. Pay attention people. Something smells fishy that’s going on.

  5. Sara Sikes

    This is a crucial time for the former NEON programs serving low income residents. If the state decides to award them to a new agency, it needs to be run by a diverse Board of Directors, who will hire an Executive Director based on a record of experience and not political connections or identity politics. The South Norwalk Community Center might possibly be the solution, but only if they diversify their Board of Directors and prove that the organization will serve all the constituents of the community.

  6. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    They keep digging about the pay checks but they neglect to reference the players Jackson Berkoff O Dea Morris and more that told the bank to stop the checks because Neon wasn’t getting the money. They tried to make it seem like Stephenson did somethong wrong while they were working thw back room.Now elected officals are sayinf they cant make contact if u go back they were communiticating on a weekly bases. So tell the truth is coming out soon . Something smells fishy

  7. Oldtimer

    Hopefully, instead of competing agencies, it will dawn on somebody it is time for a single agency.

  8. Joanne Romano

    Politics need to be taken out of the equation. NEON was responsible for a very diverse group of people and served many communities. It is time that a completely new Agency start from the ground up with Board of Directors and Commissioners that represent all those who will benefit from their services. Seniors, children, low income, unemployed etc. should be the main focus of any agency that takes the place of NEON. It is very sad that what once was a thriving and integral part of Norwalk and surrounding towns has been literally destroyed.

    My personal belief is that Rev. Curtis could make a huge success of such an agency such as this if and only if he were allowed to do it the right way. Cool heads should prevail on what is needed and the Director, boards and employees hired need to be educated/trained in the wants needs and regulations of such an agency and be ready to represent all people and the proper way to run such an agency expected of a non profit agency that is supposed to help people. It’s not about one group of people or another, need comes in all colors and ethnicities.

    But as usual there will be a battle of egos on who can do a better job. I say prove it. Prove it with actions rather than words.

  9. Ms Ruby McPherson

    whom ever takes on the cap agency, I think the majority of the staff was doing a good job in helping the community, I know the client service department helped me , not only with energy but gave me additional resource of people in the community who could help me with furnishing and food. It’s a shame that top management ruin it for so many staff of Neon. I hope they get their jobs back.

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