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Thursday, March 6, 2008

CAA board work could be changed

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor

As the Community Action Agency of New Haven tries to right itself after numerous missteps and a pending federal investigation, several proposed state bills would take work away from it and change the composition of its board.
House Bill 5616 proposes a pilot program in 2009 and 2010 on the energy assistance program that would allow Hamden, New Haven, East Haven, West Haven and North Haven to take applications, certify them, pay vendors and perform case management services for the energy assistance program.
The second proposal, House Bill 5799, would cap the number of board members from 51 to 25, with a minimum of 15 members. It would also put the chief elected official, plus the director of social service for each of the towns served, on the board as a way of getting direct input from those towns.
Veronica Wright, director of social services for East Haven, complained in a recent public hearing on the pilot program bill that, early in the year, clients said it took a long time to get through to CAA on the phone and they were discouraged from applying “because of the way or manner in which he or she are spoken to or looked upon.”
James Gatling, chairman of the Connecticut Association for Community Action, however, testified to long lines and filled waiting rooms across CAA agencies since the state started the energy program. late this year.
Wright said she had processed 647 applications for fuel assistance as of mid-January, while she is booked for appointments through this month and recently CAA sent clients to her for processing, rather than doing it in New Haven.. Ultimately, she said she did not want to take the program away from CAA, but felt the town should be compensated for work it does.
Smith, Gatling and Claudette Beaulieu, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Social Services, all spoke against the pilot program for energy assistance.
Smith said last year CAA of New Haven served 13,821 families with energy assistance, the largest number ever, while it has processed 8,123 applications to date this year with the number of pending cases hovering at 50-60, rather than the 500 more typical of previous years. He said waiting times are down to 10-20 minutes and applications in order are approved the same day they are submitted.
DSS has had a quality assurance team overseeing CAA for several months now after Smith reported double billing for the Meals on Wheels program that may go back seven years. Smith will have been on the job two years in May.
In a raid of the agency in December, files going back several years were seized by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as it looks at possible misallocation of funds, including energy assistance for illegal immigrants.
State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said changing the composition of the CAA boards to include town officials would be a “good first step,” while state Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-East Haven, compared it to the representation on the regional councils of governments.
“Maybe things are turning around there (at CAA of New Haven), but nevertheless, there are serious problems that seem to plague it,” said Sharkey, who also favors giving the towns the power to process applications.
Four of six members of the CAA of New Haven board resigned last year after they felt the nominating process violated its bylaws. Since then, 16 members with legal, education, business and social service backgrounds have been put on the board and Smith said it has had a positive impact.
House Bill 5799 would apply to all the community action agencies and would also lay out specific duties for board members on audits, budget oversight and contract bids, while mandating a 10-day turnaround on energy applications. A hearing on this is set for Friday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Beaulieu said the pilot program bill would fragment delivery of other social services offered through CAA. She said seven of the 12 community action agencies in the state that administer the energy program have a computer software system in place that allows the individual towns to track applications. Beaulieu said this should be used by Greater New Haven communities as well.
Gatling agreed with Beaulieu that computers, which are on site in 56 of the 148 satellite offices, is the best answer for the towns.
He said the program was smoother in 2006-07 because of an August 2006 start-up and going forward he recommended Connecticut again allocate funds for the State Appropriated Fuel Assistance to help those who do not qualify for federal assistance given that average heating costs haves more than doubled since 2001.
As for the bigger picture, Gatling said this year was the worst he has seen in 15 years. He said the state plan on how to use the funds wasn’t filed with federal officials until the end of September, while instructions on proper processing for some customers wasn’t issued until February.
A total of 97,791 applications statewide were approved in 2006-07 up from 90,243 in 2005-06.

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