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.”