(This story was substantially updated at 4 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, with new information.)
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) issued a press release Friday to announce some new board members, but the news was tempered by another release from the state announcing the termination of its halfway house contract with the troubled agency, and a statement from the Department of Social Services saying that NEON is an “agency at risk” and setting into motion plans to try to save it while, at the same time, making plans to decertify it.
“The Connecticut Department of Correction has initiated measures to dissolve a longstanding contract for residential services with Norwalk Economic Opportunities NOW, Inc. (NEON), who currently operates a 27-bed male work release program in Norwalk, an 18-bed female work release program in Norwalk, as well as a 20-bed women and children program in Waterbury,” the release said.
“The lack of contract compliance has a direct effect on community safety, therefore swift action is necessary to ensure the safe supervision of these offenders,” said Interim Commissioner James Dzurenda in the release. “They will be placed in another facility, so that proper safety protocols are being maintained.”
The release said the decision “is a result of NEON’s inability to meet contract obligations.”
The news overshadowed a release from NEON announcing two new members of the Board of Directors.
“I am pleased to announce today two new additions to the NEON Board of Directors, LaTanya Langley and Nick Tarzia,” said board Chairman Michael Berkoff in the release.
Langley, director and senior counsel at Diageo North America, was appointed by state Rep. Bruce Morris, according to the release. Tarzia is a Stamford businessman and the owner of Stamford Toys.
“I believe that Ms. Langley and Mr. Tarzia will bring a positive energy and a new vitality to NEON,” Berkoff said in the release. “Going forward I will be focused on bringing other like-minded team players to the NEON organization.”
Berkoff also gave a vote of confidence to interim President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson.
“I also firmly believe that Chiquita Stephenson, NEON’s Acting CEO and President, who has only been in her new position since September 9, will bring a new energy and respect to the agency as we embark on this exciting new venture and challenge of revitalizing NEON,” he said.
However, shortly after his announcement, the Department of Corrections issued its press release and DSS issued its statement casting doubt on NEON’s future.
The statement said DSS is continuing to provide technical assistance and resources to assist NEON in overcoming its serious fiscal and operational problems, and is placing the agency on a Quality Improvement Plan (QIP).
Former interim President and CEO Pat Wilson Pheanious said in a least one board meeting prior to leaving Sept. 7 that NEON was working on a QIP.
DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby laid out a series of steps is office is taking immediately, including continuing to get NEON back on track while simultaneously preparing for its decertification.
Specifically, DSS is:
• designating NEON as an ‘agency in crisis’;
• requiring a series of deliverables (steps) that NEON must fulfill, in accordance with an agreed-upon Quality Improvement Plan (QIP). A QIP identifies deficiencies and proposes plans to address such deficiencies. The first deliverable is due Oct. 31;
• preparing designation of other entity(ies) to receive federal Social Services Block Grant and Hispanic Human Development program services funding;
• preparing legal groundwork toward possible decertification of NEON as a Community Action Agency, if necessary, while reviewing steps that would certify other entity(ies) to receive federal Community Services Block Grant funding;
• preparing groundwork for another entity to handle vendor payments for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) program;
• issuing a comprehensive Audit of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now Inc. Financial Position as of June 30, 2013, with a request for comments back from NEON within two weeks. The audit was provided to NEON interim executive leadership and board of directors Oct. 8.
In a press release response, Berkoff said he “welcomed the Department of Social Services statement” and the state agency’s intention to provide NEON with support in the form of resources and technical assistance “to address long-standing deficiencies that have existed within the agency for a decade or more, as well as the major unanticipated expenses incurred during the merger with Stamford’s troubled CTE.”
“NEON’s board of directors, working with the agency’s management team, are implementing plans for the consolidation and elimination of programs and services made necessary by financial constraints, in order to maintain and improve our vital services to the children, families and individuals we serve,” Berkoff said in the release.
NEON employees will be reporting to work as normally scheduled on Tuesday, Oct. 15, after the Columbus Day holiday, the release said. However, “due to necessary cost-cutting measures, 48 NEON employees were placed on a reduced work schedule today, Friday, Oct. 11, with work weeks decreased from five to four days.”
“As this is a delicate time in our history, NEON is determined to ensure that the taxpayers of the communities we serve remain our prime focus,” Stephenson said. “We are grateful for the support and technical assistance provided by Commissioner Bremby and the Department of Social Services and we will continue to work with community residents, staff, volunteers and leaders to move forward.”
In his earlier statement, Berkoff said he intends to build a positive atmosphere by bringing “like-minded individuals” onto the board.
“In closing let me make it clear that ‘nay sayers’ need not apply, nor will they be welcome under my administration,” he said.
Berkoff listed his priorities as :
• “Revitalizing our financial situation.”
• Organizing a new NEON fundraising campaign.
• Branding NEON in a new light.
• NEON governance.
• “Renewing our relationship and commitment to the eight communities we serve.”
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