NORWALK, Conn. – An ongoing disagreement about utilities in the building shared by two South Norwalk non-profits led to a break-in Thursday that was labeled as vandalism by one leader and crime prevention by another.
South Norwalk Community Center Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino used an iPhone app to light up darkened corridors at 98 South Main St. at about 7:15 p.m. as he led handyman Michael Roman to the building’s mechanical room, which was locked. Roman broke into the room and turned the circuit breakers back on. About two hours later Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) employees, under the direction of NEON transitional CEO and President the Rev. Tommie Jackson, called Norwalk Police to document damage done to doors for insurance purposes, Jackson said.
NEON shut the power off, Ferrandino said. Jackson confirmed that.
NEON and SoNoCC both have deeded rights to the city-owned building. NEON occupies the entire second floor and parts of the first floor — although Ferrandino and others say that SoNoCC has the right to the entire first floor — in a lease that dates back 30 years. NEON board members have recently agreed with that interpretation of the lease.
Roman, of Precision Appliance Repair Handyman Services, also broke into NEON’s reception area under Ferrandino’s direction. Roman took the doorknob off the door. Ferrandino said NEON had been denying SoNoCC access and that would keep the agency from locking the door again.
Ferrandino said breaking in to turn the power back on was necessary because there are “thousands of dollars worth of drugs” in the refrigerator at AmeriCares, a health clinic located on the first floor of the building.
“I contacted (NEON board chairman) Mike Berkoff and left him a message strongly advising him to contact Rev. Jackson and have him turn the electricity immediately on because it was jeopardizing the refrigerated medical supplies at AmeriCares and that it would certainly be deemed a criminal act if, as a result of the tampering of the electrical power, someone were to be taken sick or possibly die as a result of contaminated medication, or spoiled medication,” Ferrandino said.
NEON turned off the power after the employees went home, he said. Volunteers who clean the center called him at about 7 p.m. and told him the lights were out, which was fortunate because the medicine would have been ruined by the morning, he said.
Last week, Ferrandino said NEON was trying to get SoNoCC to pay the utility bill. He said he has not been able to get a copy of the electricity bill from NEON. He said then it was possible the power would be shut off.
NEON officials had said that SoNoCC was not paying its fair share of the bill, but Ferrandino dismissed that complaint.
If you take the value of the square footage that NEON has been using on the first floor, using the current market rental rate of $20 a square foot, NEON owes SoNoCC money, he said.
“You would find that the space that they occupied on the first floor would far exceed any portion of the utility bill that would be our obligation,” he said. “So there is a quid pro quo that is not a level quid pro quo. Quid pro quo means equal in exchange. This wasn’t equal in exchange because the amount of square footage that they were occupying was worth far more than the operating expense of the building.”
On Thursday, he said SoNoCC pays for garbage pickup and other expenses.
Mayor Harry Rilling had sanctioned breaking in to the mechanical room, Ferrandino said.
Reached late Thursday night, Rilling said he had told Ferrandino to contact South Norwalk Electric and Water (SNEW). Ferrandino told him SNEW would not be able to get into the room where the electricity was turned off.
“I said, ‘You might have to cut the lock in order to get the power back on. If you have to cut the lock to stop that medicine from being destroyed then so be it,’” Rilling said.
Rilling called shutting off the power an “inappropriate way of handling” the situation and said it was a “little bit disingenuous.”
“They had no authority to turn the power off on the South Norwalk Community Center,” he said. “… When NEON was having their power shut off, the city stepped in and picked up their bill. They should have given the same courtesy to the South Norwalk Community Center and let us step in and work it out.”
Board of Estimate and Taxation members on April 7 authorized a special appropriation of $70,748 to cover NEON’s operating expenses at the Ben Franklin Center and at Nathaniel Ely School. Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said in March that the city had received multiple shut-off notices for the electricity at Ben Franklin and had taken over the bills as of Feb. 1.
Rilling was surprised to hear that NEON had called police.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “First of all, South Norwalk Community Center has a lease to the building as well as NEON does. It’s a shared facility and for them to file a police report I think is getting a little bit silly.”
The report is listed as an “other investigation” on the police incident log.
Jackson said that Ferrandino had first threatened to “break down the door” of the reception area in early March.
Jackson and Berkoff said that, on March 23, NEON Chief Financial Officer Daniele Watson Yates sent a letter to Ferrandino and other SoNoCC leaders demanding money for the utilities.
“We want to collect money to them for the costs and expenses associated with the costs of the building. They never responded to that letter,” Jackson said.
Jackson and Berkoff could not immediately provide a copy of the letter. It was sent “snail mail,” they said. A copy went to Rilling, they said.
Rilling said the letter did not mention turning the power off. The first he heard of that was in an email today, he said.
Jackson confirmed there had been an email.
“Today I said that if we did not hear from … anybody on behalf of the South Norwalk Community Center or AmeriCares that we were going to turn the lights off,” he said. “We turned the lights off. That’s what happened.”
Breaking in was vandalism, he said.
“That’s the first crime right there,” he said. “The second crime is they were trespassing. Who gave them the authority to go in and do that?”
He did not appreciate Ferrandino’s assertion that the ruination of AmeriCares’ drugs might be considered a criminal act.
“I don’t know where he gets that from,” he said. “I didn’t learn that when I was in law school. I don’t know.”
Jackson said he is a “peacable guy” who wants to get along with everybody.
“I’m not there to fight Mr. Ferrandino. I’m not there to fight the mayor. I’m not there to fight anybody,” he said. “The only thing I was asked to do was to come in and try to salvage a program that was in a crisis mode, get the people paid, bring some credibility to the organization and if possible give it new life, start it over again. I tried to do those things.”
It looks like Ferrandino wants to make it personal, he said.
“I’m not going to get personal with him. I refuse to do that,” he said. “He’s got a constituency that he’s trying to serve. NEON has a constituency that we’re trying to serve. More often than not those constituencies sometimes are the same. I refuse to get into a personal fight, a political fight, with him or anybody else with this. I’m just not going to do it. I don’t think it serves no useful purpose for anybody.”
SoNoCC should pay its share of the building’s expenses, he said. NEON is only asking for SoNoCC’s share from the last 18 months, he said.
“I wish them nothing but well and peace and I hope they will do the same for us,” he said. “I will just simply close by saying this: I do not know any place in the world, including free America or socialist communist Cuba, where you can stay and live and eat for free. Even in socialist communities people have to work to pay their way. Capitalism it is no different. I think it is wrong … they have gotten a free ride from NEON for years.”
Ferrandino fired back in a late-night phone call that if anyone has gotten a free ride it is NEON, given that it has used the space on the first floor for years without compensation to the center. NEON also named SoNoCC as its designated subcontractor in a contract with the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) for a Hispanic Human Development grant and then pulled the money, he said.
That was done under former NEON interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious. Ferrandino’s wife, SoNoCC Director Marino Foreno, has continued to provide the services to the Latino community as a volunteer.
“They still owe us more than $40,000 on that contract alone,” he said. “Talk about a free ride. We provide the services and NEON fails to pay us.”
DSS pulled the HHD grant from NEON for failure to provide the services.
“Jackson is trying to draw us into a street fight,” Ferrandino said. “SoNoCC is not interested. However, when a bully goes too far, as the governor’s ethics committee member (Jackson) went tonight in cutting off the electricity on our first floor and thus risking the refrigerated medical supply at AmeriCares Free Health Clinic, it was time to stand up to the bully. SoNoCC is moving forward and will attempt to unite the South Norwalk community for the benefit of our children and our families.”
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