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Norwalk Housing Authority’s Head Start funding request cut significantly

Norwalk Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron talks about the Norwalk Housing Authority Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Housing Authority will only need at most half the money it originally requested to maintain the Head Start program at its current level next year, city officials said Monday.

Norwalk Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron spent some time crunching the numbers recently and found the original estimate of the amount of Norwalk tax money needed to help maintain the number of children being served by Head Start next fall — $1 million – was overinflated by at least 50 percent.

Barron’s analysis drew praise from city officials, and it raised questions as to why Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) had needed the $1.3 million it had gotten for years from the city, officials said.

Barron and Finance Director Thomas Hamilton told Board of Estimate and Taxation members they were not yet ready to recommend a dollar amount for a contribution to NHA, but the best guess at this point is $250,000 to $500,000.

There is currently about $529,000 of wiggle room under the budget cap set by the Common Council. The BET agreed to send a proposed operating budget to the council that does not include any money for NHA’s Head Start, pending a concrete dollar figure.

NHA Executive Director Curtis Law had based his original request of more than $1 million on the amount of money Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) had received in the past. That request is an attempt to bridge the gap between the number of children that have been enrolled in Norwalk Head Start and the number of children that are actually paid for by federal and state grants. While NEON had been serving 232 children in Head Start, only 177 have been funded for the past two years – a prime reason the agency is in the near-bankrupt state that it’s in, NEON officials have said.

“It looks like we’re going to be able to keep the level of service and fund it with far less than had been given to them in the past,” Mayor Harry Rilling said.

Barron spent several days with the Housing Authority, visiting the Ben Franklin Center and the Nathaniel Ely School and “essentially built their budget from the ground up,” Hamilton said, calling the effort an “unbelievable amount of work and really top quality work.”

“We sent Bob to work with them to look at what the revenue streams were because there’s Head Start, there’s School Readiness, there’s Pre-K, and you ask ‘what is the difference between those programs’ and nobody can really give you an answer,” Rilling said. “I asked that question. … They couldn’t give us an answer, and also there were revenue streams that nobody was taking into account.”

Barron said he was surprised to realize that the Housing Authority is essentially running the same program NEON did, as it hired all the same employees.

“I thought the Housing Authority had come in and changed everything and developed all these efficiencies and that is why my numbers are so much less than what they were previously being funded. But it turns out that all they did was take over the payroll of NEON. They have the same people in place and yet they are showing sufficient money without our million three, which is amazing,” Barron said.

BET member James Feigenbaum asked if NEON should have been able to run Head Start without the $1.3 million from the city. Hamilton pointed out that about $937,000 went to Head Start, and $390,000 was for administrative costs.

Barron repeated the question rhetorically, then answered it.

“If they were able to run it on only $500,000, where did the $800,000 go? Well, I think the answer is what we have been reading in the newspapers, that they were allocated to other projects,” he said.

BET member Ed Camacho said it was “alarming” that Barron had to go to NHA to figure out the financial details of the program for the agency. Barron replied that NHA had only taken it over on Feb. 4.

“They have been spending all of their time the past two months making sure they have payroll records on everybody that is reporting to work, to make sure those payroll records were being transmitted to ADP. They are in a state of flux but honestly I think they welcomed a second set of eyes,” Barron said.

Among the mistakes made in the $1 million request was an extrapolation from the March 5 payroll, Barron said. NHA officials multiplied that by 26 to come up with an estimate for the year, but that payroll included people who were paid more than 1/26 of their yearly salaries.

He went classroom to classroom, he said.

“They have each of the classrooms certified for a certain number of students. It was interesting to add up all the certification for the infant and toddler program and say that you only have certified for 48 spaces but in their budget they were asking for 56,” he said.

BET member Anne Yang-Dwyer said, “I think any request for funds needs to be accompanied by a third-party evaluation.”

Rilling said he had made it clear that any funding granted would be for this year only.

The finance men said they expected to have a concrete estimate for the May 7 BET meeting.

“Unfortunately, and we’re just sharing this with the mayor as well, the numbers are still moving to an extent that I am not comfortable saying you ought to put something directly in the budget,” Hamilton said. “…. I would say we’re literally 99 percent of the way there, but I think Bob is right. He needs to go back and share these numbers with the Housing Authority folks and make sure they’re in agreement that he has captured everything accurately and properly.”

Comments

18 responses to “Norwalk Housing Authority’s Head Start funding request cut significantly”

  1. Lifelong Teacher

    More ‘things that make you go hmmmmm….’ What was NEON doing with that money? Certainly not putting it towards Head Start.

  2. John Hamlin

    Why isn’t law enforcement investigating NEON management?

  3. anonymous

    @Hamlin, good question. What happened to this money all these years? Where is Duff when you need him?

  4. Dawn

    And will we still be picking up the utility bills Mr. Mayor.
    Each “tennant” should be responsible for paying their own portion.
    How can it be that if NEON does not pay everyone else suffers.
    This is the 21st century. COME ON.

  5. Oldtimer

    Once again, somebody has looked at NEON’s books and found numbers that do not add up. Bob Barron’s review was apparently limited to head start costs and city support. It sounds like NEON mixed funds and expenses from a lot of programs. A thorough audit covering several years might be in order. An outside audit several years ago found problems with expenses not properly documented. Sloppy book keeping invites cheating.

  6. Bill

    The money went to pay associate degree holders, scratch that, I meant to say high school graduates $150,000 salaries to run once successful programs into the ground.

  7. Things that makes you go hmmmm

    Let me get this right, Norwalk Housing Authority had Bobby Burgess pitch a spill about more money during the Mayors night out in South Norwalk and how Mayor Knopp stopped that money. And now they don’t need the money. Oh wait because they are not going all year around, they are going only to June and that’s it. I just think the FEDS need to stop playing and come in and look into the books. All the politican’s that were there with Neon is now with Housing. INTERESTING

  8. Please

    Intersting

  9. LWitherspoon

    This is the strongest suggestion yet that there was serious mismanagement at NEON and City leadership was right to cut off funding until NEON presented credible audited financials.
    .
    Speaking of credible financials, didn’t Mayor Rilling and/or the Norwalk PD direct NEON to preserve all financial information? What was the result of that request? Will taxpayers ever get to know what happened to all the tax money given to NEON over the years?

  10. Norwalk Spectator

    @ Things that make you go hmmmm….
    .
    Just a minor point of clarification. I believe it was the BET and Common Council during Mayor Moccia’s administration that voted to stop the City grant funding for NEON due to bookkeeping irregularities that were later verified by the State of Connecticut. I also believe that there have been several statements made by various parties that NEON’s financial difficulties developed because the City no longer awarded them the grant funding.
    .
    Hmmmmm, indeed.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ Norwalk Spectator

      Then-Mayor Moccia cut the funding as a reaction to the audit that uncovered the misuse of federal funds earmarked for Head Start, and the related “unique” bookkeeping that made tracking anything nearly impossible. Moccia slammed the brakes on to prevent the misuse or worse of what would become $2.6M of Norwalk taxpayer money. He returned that money to the general fund and did not put it aside to pay for any alternatives.

      Subsequently, Moccia has been blamed by former NEON presidents and CEOs Pat Wilson and Chiquita Stephenson as well as members of the Board of Directors including Chairman Mike Berkoff for causing NEON’s downfall.

  11. Oldtimer

    That was 2.6 million, over two years. The people doing the work at NEON counted on that money to keep their operation, including head start, running. Naturally, they now believe Moccia brought NEON down by shutting down that much funding from the city. Somebody may know where all that money was going, but it will take some investigation to find out how much is missing and who is responsible. It is, of course, quite possible that nothing is missing, but was spent in good faith and never properly documented. The merger with the Stamford group that also had major financial problems will not make finding the truth, or any missing money, any easier. Didn’t NEON buy some real estate in Norwalk and in Waterbury while it’s accounting was being done so badly ?

  12. Things that makes go hmmm

    Bobby Burgess stated the it was Knopp that stopped the raise of money each year. But when are the FEDS coming in? They have to really look at the merge as well. Jackson stated it took almost $700,00 for that merge. Who paid for it? Oh wait Neon had to pay for it. They really need the fine comb audit and real quick.

  13. Norwalk Spectator

    @Oldtimer – The NEON gang apparently counted on that money for a lot of things and when a kink developed in the supply hose, they started shutting down their good time operation. Any good magician will stress the importance of distraction (a.k.a. watch my hand…) in performing an illusion. So blaming Moccia was almost to be expected.
    .
    @ Things that make you go hmmmm….I have NO idea why Mr. Burgess keeps claiming that former May Knopp shut the funding down. It’s almost been nine years since he was in office. The funding tap got turned off almost three years ago, long after the dust settled from the Knopp administration.
    .
    Like you, I would LOVE to see the FEDS come in but it doesn’t seem likely. At this point, there’s nothing for the government to gain. The former directors are gone, the programs are basically shut down and any assets that there might have been are probably long gone. Sounds like Mr. Barron hit the nail on the head when he said, “If they were able to run it on only $500,000, where did the $800,000 go? Well, I think the answer is what we have been reading in the newspapers, that they were allocated to other projects,” he said. Yeah, we’re gonna get stuck the bill on this one.That’s a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, but the only thing that makes it palatable at all is knowing that people reap what they sow. And this is one of those cases where I hope all the chickens come home to roost.

  14. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    I believe Fred Wilms, who was Chair of the BET when that body voted to cut off funds to NEON, wrote in the Hour that the funds were cut off due to unanswered questions regarding NEON’s finances. If I remember correctly, Mr. Wilms also stated that answering the BET’s questions and providing credible audited financials were required in order for funding to be restored.
    .
    One would think that a $1.3 million funding cut would cause a non-profit organization to get its financial house in order immediately. Particularly after the prior director, Joe Mann, was forced out for offenses that ranged from spending grant money to fund administrative expenses to inappropriate expense account purchases. Oddly, the $1.3 million funding cut didn’t lead to any change in behavior. The question we should be asking is why? How could a community action agency fail to provide financials which were demanded as a condition for restoring $1.3 million in funds?
    .
    What’s more, NEON kept spending money as though it still had the $1.3 million in funding that had been cut by the City of Norwalk. So they were taking in less money than they were spending, but they still kept spending as though nothing had happened. Why? It would seem under those circumstances that Board Members blaming former Mayor Moccia for NEON’s demise would be better served to look in the mirror to see who it was that decided to spend money they didn’t have and had no reasonable expectation of receiving.
    .
    I do hope that someone will get to the bottom of these and other questions that have been swirling around NEON – some for years now. Was there criminal activity, or just shoddy bookkeeping by well-intentioned individuals? If NEON only needed $500,000 from the City of Norwalk to run Head Start, but received $1.3 million, what did it do with the other $800,000? I’m not optimistic that the taxpayer will ever learn the answer to these questions. Too many politicos on both sides of the aisle could wind up with egg on their face – Council President Hempstead and Rep. Morris, among others.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ LWitherspoon

      I think we are saing the same thing. Not sure what might have been written in The Hour — Nancy covered the story thoroughly for The Daily Vooice at the time — and the pullback was initiated in response to the audit, not some super sleuthing on the part of the city. http://norwalk.dailyvoice.com/news/norwalk-officials-neons-ceo-should-resign

      I said in an editorial later on this site that Moccia was right to hold back the money, and nothing has changed my mind. The NEON people have tried to blame Moccia for their woes, but they are just looking for an “escape goat…” There were a number of problems that brought NEON to where it is today, mostly self-inflicted. I believe it was a mix of bad intentions and well-intentioned people in denial. Whatever it was, I am stunned that the feds and the state have not pressed hard for a criminal investigation.

  15. RUSERIOUS

    Well there are 56 toddler allocated slots. and its only been 2 months for the new grantee, i hope they find sooner better than later what they have gotten themselves into. expenses for child care is costly. i dont think that news article should of been published with an already “We did It” attitude. It always come back and bites you in the GRASS (forget the G and R)

  16. Ms. Ruby Mcpherson

    ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE COMMENTS ARE RIGHT, STAFF IN ALL AREAS WAS LET GO, WHEN THE CITY AND STATE COULD HAVE STEPPED IN AND PUT SOMEONE IN PLACE TO RUN NEON THE RIGHT WAY. AS IT’S NOT JUST THE LOW INCOME FAMILIES, NEON ALSO TOOK DARIEN, WESTPORT, WESTON NEW CANAAN, AND STAMFORD,GREENWICH WHICH IS NOT JUST ALL LOW INCOME WHO NEED HELP AS PART OF THE DISTRICT ESPECIALLY ENERGY ASSIST.

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