$100 Million For What? Community Renewal Team grows, yet city still has the worst metrics of its peers
Hartford Courant Editorial
February 13, 2012
There's a good buck in poverty, if you know where to look.
Paul Puzzo certainly does. Mr. Puzzo used to head the Community Renewal Team, a Hartford-based anti-poverty agency, where he earned more than $300,000 in annual pay and benefits. In 2005, federal auditors said his and other top CRT salaries were too high. Mr. Puzzo stepped down that year, to a newly created vice president's post that CRT said would pay him $85,000 a year through the end of 2013.
But as The Courant's Jon Lender reported Sunday, Mr. Puzzo has pulled down more than $100,000 in recent years from CRT, even though he lives in Florida much of the year and rarely makes an appearance in the local office.
Some might call this a no-show job, but CRT spokeswoman Nancy Pappas said Mr. Puzzo was "actively engaged" with the agency. She said it is "important to note" that "Mr. Puzzo's compensation package is funded only by non-federal and non-state sources." Really? If he were putting in a full work week, what difference would it make?
The revelation about Mr. Puzzo's long goodbye follows a controversial firing at the agency last month. Trish Donovan, CRT's $100,000-plus chief operating officer, said she was forced to quit after current CEO Lena Rodriguez accused her of improper behavior. Ms. Donovan, a former Army major, denied any impropriety and said she was ousted because she cooperated with state auditors who were looking into a complaint about funds being diverted improperly from one CRT program to another.
The complaint has been forwarded to state Attorney General George Jepsen for further investigation. Federal authorities should be on the case as well.
Is Hartford Getting Best Bang For Buck?
However this is resolved — CRT officials say it's nothing — the tumult at the agency may offer an opportunity. What if the governor were to appoint a group to take a big-picture look at the whole 1960s-vintage community action agency model, and ask if it is the best way to renew communities?
According to its website, CRT "operates more than 60 human service programs, touching the lives of more than 100,000 customers annually, with an annual operating budget of almost $100 million and a growing staff of more than 800 employees" in Hartford and Middlesex counties.
Many of these programs, which range from Head Start and Meals on Wheels to energy assistance and prison re-entry, are vital to their recipients and staffed with hardworking people. Edith Karsky of the Connecticut Association for Community Action, which represents the state's 12 community action agencies, said more people than ever are using the services.
But since the CRT is mostly funded with public dollars, it is proper to ask if the public is getting an optimal bang for its substantial investment. Nearly $100 million a year is coming into Hartford, and much of it is spent here. For that, Hartford has the highest rate of poverty, 31.9 percent; child poverty, 44.5 percent; and unemployment, 14.2 percent, in the state.
According to the city's "One City, One Plan" document approved last year, Hartford led selected peer cities — New Haven, Bridgeport, Springfield, Providence and Worcester — in a number of other negative metrics, such as smallest percentage of married-couple households and married-couple families with children, highest percentage of female-headed families, highest percentage of custodial grandparents and the highest percentage of adults over 25 who have not finished high school.
Although it's impossible to say how much worse things would be if CRT weren't here, it does seem that with nearly $100 million a year coming in, things ought to be picking up. Are we renewing the community or sustaining it in poverty? Is there a better way to use the money? Should, for example, there be actual jobs rather than job training?
A successful anti-poverty agency would put itself out of business. CRT boasts of its growth. It's been about the only growth industry in North Hartford for 40 years, and something seems wrong with that.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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