Financial woes threaten social service group

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NAUGATUCK — The Human Resource Development Agency, the non-profit social services organization that picked up where the now-defunct borough welfare department left off, may have to close its doors—and end its services to borough residents—for good at the end of March.

A motion before the joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance to provide HRD with $20,350 to help it through a financial rough patch failed, 9-8, with one abstention, at Tuesday night’s meeting. Burgess Anothony Campbell, who works as a bus driver for HRD, abstained from the vote and, notably, Mayor Bob Mezzo, Deputy Mayor Tamath K. Rossi and Finance Board Chairman Ray Lennon, Jr. all voted against awarding the money.

HRD provides busing services for elderly and disabled borough residents who need to get to medical appointments for routine treatments like chemotherapy, dialysis and physical therapy. It also provides mental health, referral and social services. Borough residents who need help with their rent and utilities or who are unable to afford clothing or even diapers have benefited from HRD’s work over the years.

The agency lost a major grant this year when the state made cuts to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. And Joanna Clisham, HRD’s director, came before the joint boards last month to request the sum, which would help cover administrative costs as well as basic utilities at the agency’s Rubber Avenue property through the end of the fourth quarter, June 31.

The boards tabled the vote until this month, and the outcome wasn’t the one HRD wanted and perhaps needed.

Unless HRD finds a creative solution to its budget problem and is able to keep its doors open, hundreds of borough residents will lose those services at the end of the third quarter, March 31.

Last year, HRD saw a dramatic spike in demand for its services: Between June 2008 and December 2008, HRD dealt with 245 social services clients; during the same period in 2009, that number increased to 953, according to HRD Board of Directors Chairwoman Maria DaSilva.

Officials were wary that a supplementary payment to prop up a budget crippled by state cuts could turn into more, unforeseeable disbursements in the future.

And indeed, HRD’s future into next fiscal year would be uncertain. Clisham said she’s already working on securing new grants and exploring fundraising options, but as of yet, no miracles are to be found. She said she needs the money to keep the agency’s doors open through the end of the fiscal year, at which time, with any luck, the agency would be able to secure a new grant or otherwise raise funds.

“The only guarantee is that we’ll keep going until at least July 1 [given the money],” Clisham said, “but we’ve been going for 40 years, and we’ve managed to stay alive pretty well.”

The crux for officials seemed to be HRD’s property on Rubber Avenue, especially considering the $20,350 would have covered administrative costs mostly related to it. That property provides options because of its equity, some argued, and HRD needed to consider mortgaging or selling outright and moving into a cheaper facility or a borough-owned building.

“The main need [for additional funding] is to keep the building,” said Republican Burgess Bob Neth. “Now we, as a group, need to look back and say, ‘Jeez, what can we do to be a little creative here?’ … If you have a problem maintaining services in your current facility, you need to look at other options.”

Finance Board member Don Carten suggested selling the facility and establishing an annuity to help defray future costs.

When Democratic Burgess Mindy Fragoso suggested HRD consider flipping the coin and renting its property, Clisham asked if the borough needed any space to rent.

“Yes, we do,” Mezzo joked, “but we have no money to pay you.”

That quip may have elicited some much-needed laughter in the midst of what proved to be a difficult debate, but it served as a reminder that HRD isn’t the only entity having budgetary problems.

“There’s no question that the work [HRD does] has excellent value,” Lennon said. “No one is disputing that. But we’re going to have a hard time finding funding for everything [in the budget] next year, just as they are … I don’t think we can commit those kinds of funds” and set the borough up for future commitments to supplement HRD’s budget.

Fragoso was probably the most vocal proponent of giving HRD the money and trusting its future capacity to find grants, raise finds and borrow money in order to return to autonomy.

She recalled last month’s joint boards meeting, when she was the only member to vote against approving a Department of Public Works purchase of a new plow and sand truck. She voted against that measure because she wanted to explore alternative financing options. As it was voted upon, the truck’s financing alone will cost approximately $25,000 over the next five years.