Despite what Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 called a “tumultuous” past, Empower New Haven, Inc., the local arm of a federal community revitalization program created during the Clinton administration, will continue to do its work, the Board of Aldermen’s Community Development and Human Services Committees voted unanimously Wednesday night.
Required by a previous aldermanic resolution to review the city’s Memorandum of Agreement with Empower New Haven, Inc. this month, the aldermen fired probing questions at Empower President and CEO Stephen C. Robinson, touching on issues of financial transparency, the notorious inefficiency of the organization’s bureaucracy, and the projected “sunset” of both the president and the organization.
Effusively praising his staff members for their diligence in resurrecting a much-criticized organization, Robinson responded to the concerns raised and voiced optimism while admitting the potential for an untimely death of the program if federal funds continue to ebb.
“How do we spend this money?” Robinson asked, referring to the just over $11 million of as-yet-uncontracted Empower funds. “You do that with a vision. The mission in 2003 is to get that money out of here.”
To help move funds from Empower coffers to New Haven streets in the form of business grants and homebuyer loans, Robinson announced that the Empower Board of Directors has implemented measures to streamline the process of applying for and receiving federal money.
Even with a potentially more efficient procedure for handling contracts and doling out funds, the prospect of premature termination for what was originally designed to be a 10-year program is very real. Though Robinson dispelled fears that the federal government might revoke funds previously allocated to the city, he said this money needs to get into programs and projects soon.
“We don’t feel the federal government breathing down our neck,” Robinson said, in response to fears that the new administration might curtail the Clinton program. “We feel much more of an urgency from the people of New Haven that this money be used effectively.”
Robinson said that based on figures from the past three years, Empower will exist until 2004 given its current funds. The board stipulated that, in addition to submitting monthly financial statements, Empower must also submit a work plan sorting out past financial accounts by April 1 and plans to reconvene at the end of this year to review the organization’s progress.
Even with the seemingly imminent doom of the program and the probable departure of its president even sooner, aldermen came away pleased with the new direction of Empower New Haven, Inc.
“I think we need to give [Empower] an opportunity to continue,” said Ward 16 Alderman Raul Avila, chair of the board’s Human Services Committee. “The morale of the staff [at Empower] has increased twofold.”
Deputy Economic Development Administrator Paul Wessel also expressed support for the continuance of the program.
“At its best, Empower New Haven is about the partnerships that makes New Haven what it is,” he said. “I think the organization is coming into its own.”
If the memorandum of agreement had been terminated, the city would immediately claim all of Empower’s funds, pending the creation of a new program to replace the defunct organization.
The full board will vote on the joint committee’s approval of the contract in their meeting in three weeks.