NEON ‘working hard’ to fix problems, but questions about pay, programs remain unanswered

Above: A video posted Oct. 1 on the NEON website of CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson discussing the agency.


NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) released a statement to the media late Monday night blaming the city of Norwalk and an ill-advised merger with Stamford’s CTE anti-poverty agency for its current plight – a social service agency with most programs shut down, unable to meet payroll and under the cloud of a negative past federal audit and an ongoing state audit.

The statement gave no indication when programs, including Head Start, would re-open, when employees would be brought back to work, and whether employees would, indeed, receive their paychecks today (Tuesday). Employees were informed Friday – payday – that they would not see checks until Tuesday.

Sunday night, after NancyOnNorwalk obtained an email sent to employees telling most of them not to show up for work Monday or Tuesday, we sent the agency a list of questions. There was no response. At 10:48 a.m. Monday, we received an email saying “A press release will follow shortly…” That release came at 11:13 p.m. and did not address the immediate questions.

NancyOnNorwalk sent the following questions at 11:24 p.m. to Board of Directors Chairman Michael Berkoff, President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson and press contact Scott Harris:

• Does NEON, indeed, have $283,000, give or take, coming Tuesday through DSS?

• Will everyone be paid Tuesday?

• When will Head Start reopen?

• When will NEON offices reopen?

• Will the current employees be brought back to work, and when, pending a review of what changes will be made?

There was no response to the questions.

Employees of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) stand outside the agency’s Nathaniel Ely Head Start location after being informed that their paychecks would be delayed until Tuesday.

The $282,000 influx from DSS was reported Friday night after NEON board member Jack O’Dea said he and Berkoff had spoken that morning with “the governor’s people and the governor.” O’Dea said in a Sunday email he had not talked with the governor, and Monday, Berkoff and Stephenson said that no one had talked with the governor.

The press release late Monday night, sent by Harris under Stephenson’s name and attributing at least some information to Berkoff, said Berkoff and the NEON board “are working hard to resolve a variety of financial and program issues.”

The release then pointed at Norwalk’s refusal to continue giving $1.3 million a year for the past two years to the agency, “leaving NEON with a shortfall of $2,600,000.” NEON, however, “has continued providing services to the Norwalk community because the organization understands the immediate impact that cutting these services would have on the lives of the men, women, and children that we serve.”

Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said last week that the city should not be blamed for NEON’s problems.

“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.”

Monday night’s release said Berkoff said NEON “unwisely was placed in the position of taking on a difficult merger with the troubled CTE agency in Stamford,” and that NEON lacked sufficient resources or staff to handle it.

The release said Berkoff will call for a meeting with the leaders of each of the eight cities and towns currently served by NEON, asking them to work with the agency to get it back on solid financial footing, “assess what the board and management need to do to correct and resolve current financial difficulties and to implement the necessary steps to ensure that this situation will not be repeated in the future.”

The regular monthly board meeting is planned for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday as posted on the NEON website.


13 responses to “NEON ‘working hard’ to fix problems, but questions about pay, programs remain unanswered”

  1. NEON’s lights out, no word on restoration

    Well that cleared everything up, NOT. So no one spoke to Malloy and the phantom DSS check, everyone is waiting on, is (apparently)clearing. What a way to run an organization. We can do better, can we not?

  2. Mike Rotch

    Good job Mayor Moccia. Don’t cave in. Please do not give NEON any more taxpayer money. They are corrupt and need to close their doors permanently.

  3. Blame Game

    Blame the Mayor.
    Blame the Governor.
    Blame the merger.
    Blame Head Start.
    Blame DSS.
    Blame the former Board
    Blame, blame, blame.

    This is a desperate and feeble strategy given the magnitude of the situation.

    Prior to Ms. Stephenson’s recent appointment, who held the position of chief financial officer while the interim CEO took over for Mr. Mann? Who was responsible for managing the financial risks of the organization over the last 20 months? Who was responsible for financial planning and record-keeping? Did anyone actually review and analyze those records? Assuming that person was competent, he or she would have been well informed and able to avoid the train wreck that we are all tragically witnessing today.

    Seems obvious to me that if blame is to be placed, Ms. Stephenson should be pointing fingers inside her own house—where the REAL responsibility rests.

  4. WHAT?

    The City of Norwalk has witheld the 1.3m for two straight years now. How did this make them unable to meet payroll? How was this a surprise? CTE and NEON asked DSS to allow the merger, so how is that a problem someone else made? I thought payroll was all set to be covered by DSS, I thought they were meeting with the governor? Were they mistaken or was this just untrue?

  5. The Norwalker

    The lack of funding in Headstart should have only troubled the Headstart Program. NEON has many other smaller programs that have been receiving their funding in a timely fashion and it is unfair that they are now being penalized with the Headstart Program.

  6. The Norwalker

    I should have asked why are NEON Programs that do not have a funding problem being furloughed?

  7. Ely Staff

    Just went to pick my check up because some staff got their checks yesterday and this morning. I was told I have to wait till 3 pm. I spoke to one staff member said she received her check yesterday then the union rep from Ely got hers this morning why do I have to wait till 3 pm???

  8. The Norwalker

    Instead of contemplating the destruction of NEON, why not figure out a way to save the current NEON Programs that have nothing to do with the current problems at NEON and who’s funding have been the only thing that allowed NEON to operate as long as it has.

  9. LWitherspoon

    Has anybody watched the video? It expresses a few nice sentiments, but it’s repetitive and laden with jargon and fails to address the many urgent questions.
    NEON needs more than happy talk to end widespread suspicion and return to doing its important work. Legitimate questions have been raised and need to be answered. I admire the attempt to communicate, but this doesn’t even begin to address the issues. Why are board members resigning en masse? Lack of financial information was cited as a reason. What are the details of that concern? Will no former board member speak on that issue? Does Ms. Stephenson have the degree she claimed to have? Of the funds that were misspent under Joe Mann, how much is clear cut fraud and how much was an excusable accounting error? How much falls into a gray area where we can’t know what it was? Of the portion – if any – that was clear cut fraud, are there any plans to try and recover those funds?
    Why is NEON lurching from crisis to crisis in the wake of Joe Mann’s departure, despite the turnaround under Patricia Wilson Pheanious?

    (Editor’s note: To clarify, this video was apparently made and posted Oct. 1 before the last four or five resignations, the shutdowns and missed payroll. That said, many questions remain and taxpayers, employees and clients need and deserve answers sooner rather than later.)

  10. Don’t Panic

    Forget about when. How much did that cost to make? Those productio values are pretty high.

  11. Piberman

    Does anyone have access to NEON’s current Financial Statements, Board minutes or salaries of NEON’s administrative officers ? Lacking such routine info can anyone explain why Mayor Moccia is acting improperly by withholding City funds ? Of all the large cast of characters involved in the ongoing NEON saga only Mayor Moccia has a clear sense of appropriate fiduciary responsible behavior. Withholding funds from an ineptly run agency is indeed fiscally appropriate behavior for our mayor.

  12. pat

    If I may interject a critique amongts the rage, fury and confusion. Ms. Stephenson needs some polishing, too many times she referenced NEON as hers, thats a no no. Its “OURS” Her body language came off to heavily defensive and kept alternating from attack to defense. One second looked like she would slap the camera the next second, romancing it. …

    Ms. Stephenson also repeatedly mentions about some type of fraud or embezzlement, ‘Preying on the vulnerable,” something to that affect. If there is felonies involved, its gonna come out sooner rather than later. Should be straight, lay out all out let investigators do their jobs. If there is not any criminal negligence or malfeasance or outright larceny than it is misleading to insinuate something other.

    Other than that, she did admit her mom always told her she was book smart and street dumb so there is a learning curve involved. If she can knock that chip off her shoulder, she holds much promise no matter where she is working.

    Now, “The Production”. Music doesnt go with an interview, hello? Which at times, as she gazed off, she appear to respond to someone off cam. Initially it appeared to be an interview. But with the music and all that eye drama going on, ended up coming off as a lame heavy pressure infomercial for what exactly? Forgot the product/service already. She looked like she was ready to wring someones neck if we didn’t pick up the phone and order something, right now.

    Granted, the pressure must be substantial, for a seasoned old school boys club card carrying member; for a young passionate, professional learning the ropes and street fighting, must be intense. She is in the ring and swinging, she has the energy to go the rounds and the chutzpah to go toe to toe. Just needs a little more coaching. And a speech writer to tie it all together more clearly. And as for those social skills with the community and most importantly her staff, well we aint all perfect. Probably will be better when the pressure valve is released.

    If not, can always have her sub as chef at manna at 4;30 in the afternoon, with no menu, no ingrediants and no idea where anything is. 90 minutes to feed 200 very hungry folks, including children and seniors that depend on that meal. Ready set, go. Its a good experience. How to handle pressure and make friends while your freaking out inside..

  13. John Levin

    Hmmm. It sort of speaks for itself:

    ” . . . Within the inner city, I say this to banks, I say this to corporations, you have entrepreneurs who have the decision, and the desire, to bring forth the next what I call a miracle prescription to heal whether it be AIDS, whether it be cancer, whether it be heart disease, but because you make a determination about their zip code and where they live you discard them. And so I say this verily to a lot of the teachers that we service: it’s not a wonder that places like China and other places have a clear understanding about us, because they study us. We spend a lot of time not wanting to study one another but just automatically making a determination, a judgment call, about who they are. And so my question to individuals are [sic] ‘Who are you to Judge?’ ‘Who are you to Judge your neighbors?’ ‘Who are you to judge your children?’ . . . ”

    WTF? Yikes.

    Nice hairdo, though.

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