(Updated 1:16 p.m. with brief comments from the interim CEO and board chairman)
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) staff was told by email late Sunday night to stay home Monday and Tuesday.
The email said, in part, “Most NEON programs will be closed on Monday, October 7th and Tuesday, October 8th — employees are asked not to report to work on these two (2) days.”
The email was time-stamped 10:40 p.m. and sent by NEON spokesman Scott Harris “on behalf of NEON CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson.”
The program closures apparently include Head Start.
Questions emailed to Stephenson and Board of Directors Chairman Michael Berkoff Sunday night were not answered. Monday, in separate emails, both said a reported Friday meeting or communication between Gov. Dannel Malloy and Berkoff and board member Jack O’Dea did not happen. In a phone call, Berkoff said a press release would be forthcoming with more information later in the afternoon.
Friday’s email said some programs would remain open: “Department of Correction funded residential halfway house programs in Norwalk and Waterbury, the Transitional Living Program at Parkview South in South Norwalk and Stamford’s Viewpoint substance abuse treatment program.”
“NEON employees will receive further information and direction on the status of program closures within the next 2 days,” the email said.
Friday, after announcing paychecks for staff would be delayed until Tuesday, Stephenson told NancyOnNorwalk that layoffs were likely and hinted at other potential cutbacks.
“Unless someone comes and gives us a grant to take care of the funds that we no longer have from the city, we are going to have to do layoffs,” she said. “But, even if we got funds that came from a grant, we still have to streamline our budget to make sure that we are operating effectively and efficiently as it pertains to the costs allocations and the services that we offer.”
Stephenson was alluding to annual funding from Norwalk that was stopped by Mayor Richard Moccia is the wake of a federal audit that showed grant money was being misused under previous NEON President and CEO Joe Mann. Stephenson said Moccia’s refusal to restore funding despite what she said were improvements in the operation has contributed to the crisis.
“The facts are there,” she said. “NEON never had a budget before, we now have a budget. NEON never had a cash flow before, we now have a cash flow. The city of Norwalk received more financial information than they have ever received, from a financial perspective, of NEON in operation.”
“You call and you ask the same questions,” she said. “Can somebody reconsider? Usually what I am told is ‘there are Common Council individuals that are not in agreement with you’ so they are going to block it at every turn.”
Stephenson said the decision should not be about agreeing with her, but should be based on the people NEON helps.
“I think people, elected individuals, ought not to make things personal, but to focus on the facts on how it affects their constituents, and if you are looking at your constituents who are in need of child care, who are in need of health care, who are in need of food, housing and shelter, are you telling me are you basing your decision on the facts of the financials or on the personal perspective?”
Moccia pointed to the events of last week in defending his decision.
“Board members have resigned en masse,” Moccia said Friday night in an email. “There still appears to be problems with the money’s being misspent. There are ongoing state audits in progress. The fault is not with city.”
Several board members have resigned since NEON’s new board was formed last May after its merger with Stamford’s anti-poverty agency, CTE. The board had as many as 20 members last summer, but is down to 11. Five members resigned last week, and Chairman William Westcott left in September. Those contacted by NancyOnNorwalk cited poor financial records and management’s lack of cooperation in correcting the situation as reasons for leaving the board. State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport), who resigned from the board last week, said the board was frequently finding out about crises at the last minute.
Friday night, Stephenson said employees were expressing concern about their jobs.
“Employees wanted to know,’Can you promise us a job?’ She said. “I told them I couldn’t promise them a job with everything that is going on. I know that it is hard, but we are looking at the news on a daily basis and we are seeing corporations making a decision and they’re making decisions from a standpoint of whether they are furloughing or whether they’re laying off individuals.”
(Nancy Guenther Chapman contributed to this story)
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