NORWALK, Conn. – Patricia Wilson Pheanious considers the city of Norwalk to be in a "breach of contract" with the nonprofit she came to shepherd in the wake of a shakeup. She plans to make her case to Mayor Richard Moccia next week.
Pheanious, interim president of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, will try to persuade Moccia to grant NEON a special appropriation. If the South Norwalk anti-poverty agency doesn't get a commitment for the $1.2 million she wants, she will be forced to begin laying off staff members within the next two to three weeks.
"If we do not get the whole thing, we're going to have some significant operating problems in the future," she said.
Moccia and the Board of Estimate and Taxation did not include a $937,875 grant for NEON's Head Start program in the city's 2012-13 operating budget. Nor did they include a $389,500 grant for NEON's operating expenses.
Moccia was motivated to withhold the money because of a federal audit that showed the agency misused more than $400,000 in federal money meant for Head Start and other problems. During the budgeting process, Moccia said he could not set aside money for NEON because he did not know how much the agency would need because he did not know who might get the next federal contract for Head Start.
Pheanious convened a special meeting of NEON's Board of Directors on Thursday evening to discuss the request.
"We know this is a time when the city is strapped for funds and coming in for an appropriation of this nature is not going to fall happily on people's ears," she said. "Frankly, that's a lot of money, and we know it's a lot of money. And we know it's money we've had and utilized in the past, and we know we did not satisfactorily account for these dollars. We also know that this agency cannot run effectively without these dollars."
She asked board members whether the agency should ask for less money. "It's not as if it's an inflated number, it's the amount that we need," said Gregory Burnett, board chairman. "It's the amount we can account for."
"It's not NEON it's hurting, it's the children," said Brian Baxendale. "So we go for as much as we can." Although 275 children are enrolled in the Head Start program, Baxendale said NEON touches the lives of 500 children.
The city has been giving NEON the grant money for about 20 years, board members said. Although the more than $900,000 grant is described as for Head Start, Pheanious said about $600,000 went to operating expenses and $300,000 went to the 20 percent matching funds required by the federal grant for the program. "There may have been a misunderstanding," she said. "These city dollars have been used to fill operating holes in various ways."
Moccia has said he wants former NEON President Joe Mann off NEON's payroll. Pheanious said the agency is contractually obligated to pay Mann. She was seeking the board's approval to do it out of the Orchard Street account, so that no federal, state or city money would be used.
A majority of board members attended and indicted they supported that idea. But there were not enough members there to reach a quorum. Another special meeting is planned for Sunday.
Moccia had indicated he was not happy with the lack of answers from NEON. Pheanious said she has presented him with every contract the agency has. "He not only knows where his $1.2 million was but every other dime that comes into this agency," she said.
"I know the city has a million," she said. "It's just whether our constituents are considered worthy of it. Let's get right down to brass tacks here. The money is there, either we're worth it or not. I understand the problems with the agency. ... I do not fault the mayor for withholding the money. I wish he had put it in escrow and not allow it to be spent."
The timing of layoffs would be especially bad, she said, because more than 70,000 Connecticut residents will run out of unemployment benefits next week. The Department of Social Services is working with NEON to deal with those who live in Norwalk.
NEON's deficit will touch every program it has, she said. But the agency took on Head Start more than two decades ago with the understanding that the city would provide support.
"Frankly I consider it a contract that they have breached, but that's just me," she said.
Pheanious has an appointment with Moccia to discuss the request Tuesday morning. "I don't mind being held accountable, I don't mind being transparent," she said. "But I am not Rumpelstiltskin and I cannot make gold out of straw. We need those dollars."