Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon council wants nearby towns to pitch in for homeless

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
March 12, 2008

VERNON - The financially strapped Potter's House child care center and the Tri-Town Shelter for the homeless were in the spotlight of the first budget hearing Tuesday as the Town Council started weighing in on the mayor's proposed $75.48 million spending plan - a 3.7 percent increase over this fiscal year.

Compared to previous years when "jungle rules" prevailed, the council perused 28 accounts in an orderly fashion Tuesday, ranging from town recreation to social services.

Tri-Town was the first to raise eyebrows, when council members questioned why Vernon was paying so much more than Ellington or Tolland - the other two towns the shelter supposedly serves.

The Vernon mayor's budget proposal has $9,000 set aside for Tri-Town, which has been the traditional amount the last few years. This fiscal year, funding was cut to $7,100 after four referendum votes.

Tolland has contributed roughly $3,000 annually to Tri-Town, while Ellington pitches in $4,000. But Ellington never paid last year, Pieter Nijssen, shelter executive director said.

It costs Tri-Town about $41 a person daily to serve the area homeless, and the shelter has an annual budget of $300,000. The remainder comes from private donations, funding from the United Way, and state and federal grants, Nijssen said.

According to Nijssen, of the 337 clients served last year, 48 percent came from Vernon or had a Vernon connection - a number that is hotly contested by some, including Councilman Mark Etre.

The remaining clients come from outlying towns, Nijssen said, but not necessarily Tolland or Ellington. Some have come to Tri-Town after their time has expired at shelters in Hartford, Manchester, and East Hartford, he admitted.

Clients are allowed to stay at the Vernon shelter for up to two months, with an average length of stay of seven weeks, Nijssen said.

About 10 years ago the town's contribution was much more, standing for years at $23,000. But there was no criteria attached to that spending, Alan Slobodien, Human Services Committee member and Youth Services director told council members.

Committee members worked the numbers, and determined that $5,800 was more in line for services received, but felt that was too drastic a cut. So previous councils settled on the $9,000 figure, Slobodien said.

Council members felt Tolland and Ellington should be contributing more, however.

Councilwoman Marie Herbst asked Mayor Jason L. McCoy to write to the other towns and ask them "to contribute their fair share."

"That sounds like a reasonable request to me," McCoy responded.

Meanwhile other council members were shocked to learn that the oft troubled Potter's House child care center - which nearly shut its doors last month because of lack of funds - failed to apply for a town grant as it usually does every year.

Council member Brian Motola asked why there was no budget line for the Rockville facility, which serves area working poor families.

"Potter's House chose not to request funds from the town this year," Slobodien told Motola and the council. Deputy Mayor Diane Wheelock and other committee members "brought over the documents and offered the town's help, but they refused."

Wheelock said the visit occurred in December, when the facility thought it might close.

"They may have known at the time that they were closing, and felt why bother applying for town funds," she said, adding, "now, it's too late."

In January, the child care center nearly shut its doors, saying it needed an emergency infusion of $25,000 in cash to pay the bills or it would have to send 19 families and 30 children scrambling for babysitters the following Monday.

An anonymous donor came to the rescue with a $20,000 check, buying the center another two months of operation.

Executive Director Leslie Suarez and her staff celebrated, but remained committed to further fundraising efforts, as they need at least $100,000 annually to keep their doors open.

Ever since Eastern Connecticut Health Network pulled a yearly $105,000 federal grant in 2002 the nonprofit has floundered, barely surviving month to month.

Suarez could not be reached for comment this morning.

©Journal Inquirer 2008