As Community Action Agency (CAA) reopened its doors partway, Mayor Toni Harp called on the state to forgive a decades-old debate to help the anti-poverty group stay in business longer term.
Harp made the call on her latest episode of WNHH FM’s “Mayor Monday” program.
The Whalley Avenue agency — which last year served 10,400 families, or a total of about 25,000 people, with emergency-heat, food, weatherization, and senior and youth programs — abruptly closed its doors last Friday when Liberty Bank drained its account, of almost $200,000.
Harp’s administration sped up a payment of $44,834.32 to the agency for city-contracted homeless and prison reentry services so that it could reopen its doors partway.
CAA brought 18 of its 40 full and part-time staffers back on the job Monday to keep an emergency heating program going and to handle finances and paperwork, agency Director Amos Smith told the Independent.
Liberty Bank has also restored $78,000 to the CAA account, with the remainder under discussion, Smith said.
He said he hopes to bring back some more staffers as cash flows improves — such as when the state pays its next quarterly installment of contracted money owed. He said he expects CAA to be able to keep the emergency heat program operating through the winter.
What ultimately happens with the agency is another question.
Hanging over the agency’s head is an old debit it owes to a separate social services agency, Area Agency on Aging of South Central Connecticut (AAA), for money allegedly misspent on the Meals on Wheels program.
That all happened before Amos took over CAA 12 years ago. But the dispute needed to be worked out. Since 2013, CAA has paid AAA $6,400 a month as part of a court settlement.
CAA was able to make the payments by using the profit generated by its state-contracted weatherization program — the only program in which it is allowed to use some money for unrestricted purposes. (Other programs are tied strictly to grant dollars for grant purposes.) The state has changed the terms of the weatherization program so that CAA no longer earns extra money, Smith said. So it can’t afford the monthly payments anymore. It failed to meet its most recent payment; AAA went to court, got a warrant for collection of the close to $60,000 still owed on the debt, and brought it to Liberty Bank. Liberty handed over the money — and proceeded to remove the rest of the money CAA had in the bank as well to cover a line of credit.
AAA CEO Ted Surh told the Independent his agency had no choice but to take the action to recover the money, because it in turn owes the money to the state Department of Social Services (DSS). And DSS won’t forgive the loan.
Mayor Harp said she asked DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby Friday to let CAA off the hook for the old debt. She noted that the team running CAA for more than a decade had nothing to do with the problem that led to the debt; she also said the problem stemmed from differing interpretations for how federal guidelines allowed the Meals on Wheels money (which is filtered through the state) to be spent.
“It seems like the most reasonable thing is to forgive the debt,” Harp said on “Mayor Monday.”
She compared the $60,000 debt to the “dollars we give to companies that never pay us back.”
“We’re not talking about a lot of money here. It’s not like we’re losing a million dollars,” said Harp, a former state senator. She said the money could be better spent on direct services helping the poor.
“We paid $285,000 since 2013,” Amos Smith noted in a separate interview Monday. “That was money that could have been in our bank account to help us deal with issues related to real people.”
Harp added that this week’s CAA crisis reflects a broader squeeze on not-for-profits by federal and state government cutbacks: “This sets nonprofits up to be squabbling with each other.”
She also noted that for years the state government has offloaded programs to community action agencies. When that started happening, she and others questioned whether over time the state would cut back money on those services; she said officials denied that would happen. “And here we are.”
Commissioner Bremby told her in the Friday conversation that federal rules attached to the old Meals and Wheels funding create a “legal impediment” to forgiving the debt.
“We didn’t get very far in that conversation,” Harp said.
DSS spokesman David Dearborn confirmed that the agency did not agree to forgive the debt.
He noted that DSS OK’d a four-month moratorium on loan repayments last year when the state had failed to pass a new budget.
“The remaining debt is less than $100,000, being paid gradually,” Dearborn stated. “The remaining debt is being paid gradually to reimburse taxpayers who excessively funded the home-delivered meals.”
Ed Board Challenge: Consider Kids, Not “Who Gets The Next Job.”
Also on “Mayor Monday,” Harp discussed help for families affected by Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria, development projects planned for Fair Haven Heights and Westville, and mixed results in the latest public school test score results, which prompted this observation about the Board of Education: “We’ve spent most of the past year focused on getting a new superintendent. So we have a new superintendent who’s coming in March. My hope is that the board will focus on teaching and learning, and try to provide the supports that are necessary to those schools that are not thriving, to do better.
“Our board has to think that’s more important than who gets the next job.”
Click on the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear the full episdoe of “Mayor Monday” on WNHH FM.
This episode of “Mayor Monday” was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem Moses P.C.