Norwalk slammed over grant to ‘dishonest’ SNCC

Common Councilman Warren Peña, center, chats with Tony Ditrio recently in the South Norwalk Community Center.


NORWALK, Conn. – Some representatives of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) are crying foul over the city’s award of a hefty grant to the South Norwalk Community Center (SNCC).

The center had no programs when the application for a Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) was written – the programs it took credit for were being run and funded by NEON, former interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said. Yet, not only did the center get $100,000 in federal grant money awarded through the city government, it also got the matching fund requirement waived – a fact that both Pheanious and board member Jack O’Dea are incensed about, given the ridicule NEON got when it couldn’t come up with the money to match a $21,000 grant recently.

Common Councilman Warren Peña (D-At Large) was involved in the process of getting the center a grant, which, they said, looks fishy, given that he is chairman of the SNCC board.

“To me, it reeks of conflict of interest,” Pheanious wrote in an email. “Back room deals, favoritism and lack of fair play.  NEON wasn’t the only grant-seeker applying for CDBG dollars in that round.  Has anyone else wondered why this application was funded?  When public dollars are distributed on the basis of big mouths, BS and wishful thinking it makes me wonder who is getting paid for what.”

It’s a fair question, said O’Dea, who angrily asked, “Why is that overlooked?”

Peña voted for the grant at the committee level.

“I asked Council President Doug Hempstead if I needed to recuse myself and he said that I did not need to,” Peña said in an email. “He suggested that service on a particular board does not disqualify a council member from voting on CDBG grant applications, provided they receive no compensation.  If simple service were to be the conflicted standard, most of the councilman would have issues in some way on most CDBG related funding requests.”

Peña recused himself when the entire council voted on the matter. That may have been unusual, he said.

“Historically, you should also note that council members have served on the NEON board and have equally voted to authorize CDBG funding for that organization without question,” he said. “My role as chairman of SNCC was fully disclosed in the application and was evident to anyone who reviewed it.”

Poppycock, Pheanious said.

“So the city funds and waives the dollar-for-dollar match required of NEON? I didn’t see any provision … in the federal law allowing a waiver. Does that mean the city paid the feds the match?  How does that happen?  The city supports a member of the City Council in such a blatant  manner? So what if Warren recused himself from the vote. Give me another break.”

Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Tim Sheehan said the federal government does not require matching funds from local organizations receiving the money provided by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The city requires matching funds to make the dollars stretch further, he said.

“As this match is a local program requirement and not a HUD requirement, the legislative body (Council) can, at their discretion, choose to waive it,” he said. “The sufficiency of the case for waiving the match is for the legislative body to determine. There is no making up for the lack of a sub-recipient match should the council choose to waive the requirement.  That sub-recipient is simply awarded a larger share of the CDBG grant resources than they otherwise would have been if the match had been available and required.”

Matching funds are routinely waived, he said. Five organizations applied to get that requirement waived in the last cycle, he said.

Why wasn’t the matching fund requirement waived for NEON’s $21,000 grant to fix bathrooms at the Ben Franklin Center?

“They didn’t ask,” Sheehan said.

SNCC’s application for a grant is attached below. The money will be used to upgrade the first floor of 98 South Main St., the building the center shares with NEON, it says. The proposed improvements will benefit 5,458 people, of whom 3,527 will be low income, the application says. The center helps 30,000 people a year, the application says.

01-NEON 053012 003
NEON former interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious looks remarkably upbeat in a May 2012 board meeting. She is now retired.

The application, which was submitted in late February, was ridiculed by Pheanious.

“If this application had come from or with NEON what is said therein could be true,” she wrote. “We do serve hundreds of people on the first floor. The problem is that, to the extent the grant is being made to SNCC with no mention of NEON’s role in this picture, nothing in here is true. Under the circumstances, it seems incredible to assert what is said.  At the time this grant was submitted, SNCC had no paid staff. To the best of my knowledge, they still don’t.”

The center has one part-time worker at present, Peña said.

The application is fraudulent, Pheanious said, which is especially serious given that federal money is involved.

The application cites $79,083 in revenue from a Hispanic Human Development grant from the Connecticut Department of Social Services.

DSS spokesperson David Dearborn said the HHD grant is given to NEON. “We do not have a grant relationship with the Community Center,” he said in an email.

In addition to the lack of income going to the center, NEON has been paying the entire freight of expenses for the building, Pheanious wrote.

“The people being served from 98 South Main St  were and are being served by NEON,” Pheanious wrote. “SNCC doesn’t even pay reasonable expenses of ownership.”

Pheanious said the application’s depiction of the center’s history is “at best a wishful thinking memory.”

“This grant application  makes it seem like the city built the center for SNCC,” she wrote. “As far as I can tell, the South Norwalk Community Center (the group) took that name after the South Norwalk Community Center (the building) came into existence.  I see incorporation papers say 1995.  The building was built in the ’80s.”

Her version of the center’s history is attached below.

“When this grant was written, SNCC had no programs,” Pheanious said. “They still don’t. Not in recent years anyway.  Or, well, there was arguably one. That program (an after school homework program) had to be shut down because of SNCCs failure to see that the program was licensed. The program wasn’t licensed in part because of inadequate bathroom space. NEON couldn’t afford to get that fixed. No waiver or other support from the city then. And guess who had to pay the fine? NEON.”

It all adds up to a pretty iffy application, said Pheanious, who recently said Norwalk has many “snakes in the grass.”

“The city knows all this,” she said. “They knew exactly what they were doing for whom and why. Maybe the voters understand this logic. But it leaves me wondering. … The city funds SNCC when, with Warren as the chair of the board and a City Councilman (using that title as he takes every public opportunity to bash NEON), (it) puts in a grant with this level of illusion, apparently no back up documents to support the claims, and without evidence of the consent, or knowledge of the building’s co-owner (remember NEON, the one who pays all costs)? Give me a break.”

NEON 122712 021
Common Councilman Doug Hempstead continues his service as a NEON board member last December.

Sheehan said he remembers Hempstead questioning the application at the committee level, although that isn’t mentioned in the minutes. Hempstead made a motion to cut the grant because it was a first-time applicant, Sheehan said. The motion failed.

The vote to approve the grant in the council meeting was unanimous, except that Peña abstained.

Sheehan said council members felt the quality of the center’s new board was sufficient to merit the grant, even given the center’s lack of productivity before Peña got involved. Board members have significant business experience, according to the application, although SNCC spokesman, Patrick Ferrandino said the board is currently “in transition.”

Ferrandino’s wife, SNCC Executive Director Marina Ferrandino, a volunteer, also has significant business experience, having run a travel agency that was among the top 10 agencies for a major cruise line, according to her husband. She has the equivalent of a master’s degree in business administration from a Columbian university, he said.

Mayor Richard Moccia was a “dear client” of hers, Patrick Ferrandino said. Moccia was one of  the first people to call and congratulate Marina Ferrandino when she became SNCC executive director, he said.

The Ferrandinos became involved with the center in March, he said. The application was filed in late February, given preliminary approval on March 7 and given full approval on April 23.

Pheanious said she hopes for the best.

“I guess my reaction to the proposal is, ‘If only it were true. If only it were fair. If only it weren’t fraud.’ I guess we will see,” she wrote. “I hope people get  it. And I hope the people of Norwalk who really need help get it. In the final analysis, let the facts, the services and the voters speak for  themselves.”

SNCC A Brief History.fnl2

So Norwalk Com Center CDBG App


15 responses to “Norwalk slammed over grant to ‘dishonest’ SNCC”

  1. ScopeonNorwalk

    Uh really Neon. How long did Hilliard, Hempstead, Bruce Morris, and Bob Duff sit on your board while you were receiving city and state funds.

  2. Don’t Panic

    One can only hope that the City has clear, documented criteria regarding who gets the waivers and why. They’ve admitted that There is a pattern of unequal administration of these funds. If there isn’t a opportunity for each organization to qualify for waivers under the same rules, then the arbitrary decisions of the council may be opening the city up to lawsuits and put future grantees at risk..

  3. NorwalkLifer

    Nancy, this headline is incredibly misleading and this story has no journalistic commentary on NEON’s fraught financial history. Just because this idiot says something, doesn’t mean it should be written. C’mon!!!!

  4. NorwalkLifer

    How is SNCC ‘dishonest’? Just because someone says something doesn’t mean it should be written. Seriously…

  5. Admo

    Bad story all around

  6. shoegogirl33

    I agree! This article has no merit! SNCC has one paid part-time employee. All participants involved are volunteers. Last year, SNCC received close to a $100k for their annual budget vs. keep in mind NEON annual grants (federally, state and local) is around $21 MILLION dollars. That’s a huge disparity and my question is…..Where does this money go??? This just makes me sick.

  7. loveforthecity

    Can someone tell me why this former employee is relevant? Is she jealous that a councilman did his job for the benefit of some other non-profit rather than NEON? Last time I checked SNCC has not mismanaged funds. To this point, the former Interim CEO has caused the agency more trouble than good.

  8. dawn

    We want to talk about the offering of programs and a worthy organization
    the South Norwalk branch of the Public Library ofered a wonderful program on Saturday that was free to the public.
    It was to celebrate the Chinese holiday Autumn Festival.
    They offered a free lunch, a treasure hunt for the kids and a wonderful concert.
    This is where the city money should go.
    our library offers so many programs and they are all FREE.
    everyone should be taking advantage.

  9. Ken

    Im not sure why we GIVE away anything in an economy like this. The city is raising our taxes so obviously there is NO excess to give away. As a taxpayer I could care less about squabbles involving who gets what or the politics involved. Its time to start scaling DOWN ALL these things because its obvious there is no end in sight & the intent is perpetual aid not helping people become productive. Thats why as bad as Moccia may be the LAST thing this city needs is a Democrat as a mayor.

  10. Joanne

    Whether it’s a good story/journalistic piece or not, bottom line is mismanagement and negative headlines have plagued NEON for some time.. what needs to happen here is Neon needs to clean house, bring in new blood and set things back to the right way of doing business and if the SNCC is able to bring programs to the community and help families and children in need then I see no reason they should be denied funding just because NEON members have their panties in a bunch…I sat on the NEON Executive Board and the regular board for several years and I can tell you, I have never seen such disarray in all my life as of late. In all the years I have been involved with Neon which actually dates back close to 40 years …I have never seen so much craziness from an agency that is here to help others. Should be no personal agendas…maybe it should be run by volunteers and no outlandish paychecks or another entity with a track record for success! No one is benefitting from this. The goal should be to care for the community and leave the personalities home! So good for SNCC they got the funding and I certainly hope it is used wisely, not on salaries and other frivolous things and maybe next time NEON will be a little more cautious when filing a grant request and be sure they as for what the need, dot their i’s and cross their t’s. In the meantime, I certainly hope they figure out soon how to clean up this mess! Not a huge fan of some people running SNCC for personal reasons but if they can make it work all the more power to them and good luck! Just remember you are there to help those in need, all else is secondary!

  11. loveforthecity

    Nancy are CDBG city, state or federal funds?

  12. Norwalk Spectator

    This is begining to sound like a soap opera. It has drama and he said/she sai dcomponent. All we need now is a good title. How about “Days of our Lies”?

  13. Steve Serasis

    I worked at SNCC as the ESL Director in the early 2000’s, then I was hired by NEON as the Youth Services Director/Summer Food Service director. I continued to work with SNCC, and they had tremendous programs. They were one of the two best summer camps in the city, along with the CARVER. SNCC had a variety of programs it ran extremely successfully…until the then Director of NEON left, Mike Callis. From that point on to present, NEON went on the attack to take away square footage from SNCC, and FORCE the loss of children’s programs. They dismantled the Title One computer center I built with the board of education, and made it the NEON customer service area. Their’s (NEON) was a systematic obliteration of SNCC, that they did with a purpose: TO DESTROY SNCC, all the good they were doing, and to take over the building. Many board members knew this, some didn’t. I warned every politician, that was on the board that this was happening, and more. Many fled the board, some tried to right the ship, but were too afraid of political repercussions to do anything. This is a sad but true fact. This is exactly why all leadership at the executive level that was at, and still is at NEON, should be gone. Just like they do in REAL businesses. You can’t fix a broken company, until you clean house, and put the right NEW people in.

  14. Norwalk Dinosaur

    What’s all this anger about? What a ridiculous Hatfield and McCoy rivalry. The leadership of these organizations need to get their acts together. NEON and SNCC need to clean up their books and start being more concerned about their clients, the taxpayers that fund them, and the community, than petty bickering. Lastly, Ms. Wilson should just stop talking.

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