NEON loses halfway house contract, gets ‘at risk’ tag from DSS

Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson explains potential layoffs to an employee last week in the Nathaniel Ely School gymnasium.

(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.”


13 responses to “NEON loses halfway house contract, gets ‘at risk’ tag from DSS”

  1. JustAsking

    … adding new members to the Board, “nay sayers” need not apply…
    Rome is burning, run for the hills.

  2. WHAT?

    Why do they keep pretending Chiquita Stephenson is ‘new’ leadership who is only on the job for a short while? Stephenson completely co-opted Pat Phineous, who allowed Stephenson to run the show the whole time. Meanwhile, Stephenson was so busy making sure that any new board member that disagreed with her would leave that she didnt bother to comply with any of the very serious requirements of contract compliance. These new ‘like-minded’ board members should solve everything. Congratulations Chiquita, you are in charge of everything — everything that’s left.

  3. malcolm

    LaTonya Langley was part of the old NEON Board. She is not new to NEON. Why are they recycling Board members now? Is it because she is a friend of Chiquita Stephenson’s? Is she one of those “like minded people” referred to in the article.

    NEON needs new thinking. You can’t fix the problems the agency faces by operating in the same old way. If Chiquita really wants to fix NEON, she will resign! NOW!

  4. ScopeonNorwalk

    Here’s literally what happened. Instead of Chaquita stepping aside for someone who has experience to run a multi-million dollar organization to be hired as CEO, Chaquita decided to take the position and transform NEON back into a mom and pop non profit that will soon have no programs because you know Head Start is going to be the next to pull out…so basically she said I want my money and position, screw the rest of the employees. If Chaquita would have stepped aside, a lot of people would still be employed today.

  5. ScopeonNorwalk

    Also, no one is understanding how Bruce Morris can appoint someone to the Board. Puzzling situation. Is he on the Board? Is he on the payroll?

    1. @ScopeOn,
      As I understand it, the board must be tri-partide, with 1/3 of its members elected officials or people selected by elected officials. Since Bruce Morris is a state representative he gets to appoint someone.

  6. Oldtimer

    Must be tripartide ? I have the same understanding, but that rule has been pretty well ignored for a long time. The current board was all recruited and put in place by the outgoing temporary administrator, Patricia Wilson Pheanious, appointed by the State.

  7. amazed

    Lets just say the State didn’t do NEON any favors by appointing Patricia Wilson Pheanious. She spent 18 months playing the blame game and brought nothing to the table. The agency was struggling before her arrival and now it is on life support.
    My prayers go out to the employees.

  8. Loretta

    Would like to have better understnding of the services NEON provides. NEON’s building has about twenty employees’s, perhaps more at certain times, by just rough estiate of the cars in the lot, and yes some are vistors but without the details… What do they all do in there anyway? OK there is Head Start, at what Ben Franklin and Ely? And NEON operates the two post incarrceration transitional houses, one for males and one for females, right? Well did anyway. Alternatives to Incarceration also have an office located at NEON, right? CCA did have their vital community food pantry, located at NEON, which familes, unemployed and poverty wage earners depend upon, until CCA was given the boot and rudely shown to the door. It is common knowledge that SNAP only provides two weeks of low cost life sustaing nutrition. that is why the three food pantrys in town play such a vital role in peoples lives. But NEON thought it best evict CCA. Really? Really. Now lets see, Americares still has an office at NEON, right? Do they pay rent? They must or they would get the boot too. And there was the “community closet” deal that Mann began down in the basement, a kinda free store for clothes, never was properly organized and evaporated after the whole deal with Manns ex living atop the store (expanded from Manns’s, basement start up) living rent free. So Norwalks “Free Store,” where folks that need can take what they need and leave what they dont need, a concept that is working very well in many cities, our Norwalk Free Store, is closed until futher notice. What other stuff does NEON do for the community? What about employment skills training? Computer literacy classes? GED clasess and testing? Well, kinda. There is kinda employment training stuff and once in awhile computer literacy exposure but there are no GED classes or testing at NEON. Wait what? Yes the community non profit whose sole mission is to create enviroments and provide tools in the tool box that help lift people out of poverty and dispair and into better, happier, healthier lives, yes NEON has no real, tangible, effective education or employment programs. Go figure. Teaching someone how to fill out an application without teaching them how to read, no less develop critical cognitive skills is, well, a no brainer, no? Ok so what else does NEON do? Well every once in awhile they allow events at the community room, if its not booked, for a paid gig, that is. So what else does NEON do? Well they provide free office space for CT Leagl service once a week or so. NEON also helps administer the Low Income Heating Assistance but dont ask the applicants about customer service because there isn’t any. Does NEON hold community events say like a Christmas party’s? After school stuff like arts and crafts? Drama? Basketball games? Day trips? Summer camps? How about a halloween haunted house for the kids? Read- athon challenges with prizes? No, no, no, no, no, no, no no, and no. hmmm. Dont ask to use the bathroom there either, its locked and off limits to all, accept to key holding staff. Wait, what? Vistors cant access the bathrooms? Inviting atmosphere, isnt it? A fine example that it is serving the community. Libray has ame issues but they keep thier bathrooms open and safe to the public. The library’s even have bathroom tissue. Yep,how do they do it? So the major expendiures that NEON has are salaries, for the most part but for what are we getting for teh salaries? Indeed, it is time to rebrand NEON but it’s going to take allot more than just, say, a name change. An attitde readjustment and a relalignment with mission core values is also are needed. NEON hasn’t been real neighbourly in recent memory becoming more and more frosty and seemingly isolating itself from its core mission and its targetd clients. That all needs to change and swiftly, if NEON’s reorganization and rebranding is to be successful. NEON must get back to the basics and reach out to the community that it is soley set up to serve. It has become an embarassment and not just to NEON but to our entire town and is tarnishing and impeding the efforts of many that are working hard to make things better for all citizens. What are the programs run by NEON, specifically? Why are there not more programs to reach out and involve the community? Why is it that all we only hear about is NEON’s fundraising and lack of and mismanagement? Where, well, where is the beef? When is the last time anyone can remember, NEON had good copy in the press? Actually showed results?

  9. tired of bad publicity

    Please note Neon has a full workforce development program operating out of Ben Franklin School- where participants are engaged in mock role playing interviews, resume and cover letter creation and the opportunity to be interviewed by an actual employer. The program sessions run for 1 week, this program also runs in Stamford. Neon has a GED program and until recent cuts also ran an ABE GED program. NEON @ Ben Franklin runs a Department where intake and assessments are performed, and citizens are referred to programs in house as well as agencies throughout the city. (Please note NEON also offers an instructed Computer Class).

  10. Mary

    Well those seat warmers upstairs are about to get to use their skills to write their own resumes and do thier own interviews because the gravy train has reached its last stop. Timeto get off.

  11. Like Minded Person


    Some people actually care about the programs that NEON runs and what NEON’s original purpose was. While some may give up on NEON there are others that truly care and are willing to roll up their sleeves and find a solution. You call them recycled, I call them people who believe in second chances and have faith in the organization and its turn around. If you are not trying to resolve the problem, you are the problem.

  12. Melissa

    I was in neon women and children halfway house last year 2012 and after they got a new director the halfway house was improved very much I cant say anything about the one in Norwalk but the one in waterbury changed drastically and all for the better all the staff truly cared for the women and children id liketo thank the waterbury neon staff for helping me become the mother and law aabiding citizen that I am now if it wasn’t for them who knows where I would be now

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