Legislative leaders tackle questions of how to help those in need
GREENWICH — Even as the need grows for human services in the town, there is less state funding available to help, the town’s leaders warned as they gathered Thursday morning for the Greenwich United Way’s annual legislative breakfast at Town Hall.
Residents should brace for the worst, with a national recession possible, said outgoing state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-36, who painted a dire picture of the challenges ahead.
“We all got into the business of public office to help those who are in need, and we tried for many, many years to do so,” said Frantz, who lost his bid for re-election. “Connecticut seems to be on this trajectory that’s not going to deliver the goods, meaning the resources, that nonprofits need to provide services to those in need. At the end of the day, we have to get our state back in order to generate revenues so we can be in a position to repair our balance sheet and support all of these wonderful groups.”
State Rep. Livvy Floren, R-149, a member of the legislative Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said tough decisions have to be made when it comes to funding.
“It is imperative that we continue to stay under the $1.9 billion bond cap and that we remain steadfast in funding needs, not wants and must haves, not nice to haves,” Floren said. “My goal is to design a bipartisan bond bill that emphasizes education, especially school safety and security and (vocational and technical) schools. We need to increase our inventory of affordable housing and the school-based and community health centers. They are so effective and accessible.”
Frantz and Floren took part on the Greenwich United Way’s packed panel, along with state Reps. Fred Camillo, R-151, and Michael Bocchino, R-150. Stephen Meskers, who will be sworn in as the new Democratic representative for the 150th District next month, and Alexandra Bergstein, who will be the new state senator for the 36th District, also were on the panel, along with First Selectman Peter Tesei.
At the breakfast, Bergstein was asked how nonprofits could get funding to help at-risk populations during times of financial change and uncertainty. First, the state budget has to be addressed, she said, then money could be freed up to fund critical services to the state’s youth, the poor and the elderly.
“We need to plan ahead for situations where the funding may be squeezed. So to that end I would propose that we plan ahead by having our own rainy day fund for local nonprofits,” Bergstein said. “The money would not be used except under exceptional circumstances, which would be defined by a council of nonprofits. The Greenwich United Way already has such an entity. They have the Community Planning Council, which conducts needs assessments on a regular basis in the community. We can put money aside for them to use as a rainy day fund.”
During the audience question-and-answer session, Bergstein was asked who should set up that fund. Tesei said it is “abundantly clear” there isn’t a need for a rainy day fund because Greenwich can meet those needs when problems arise in town.
But Bergstein said nonprofits could fund the effort without government involvement. That would cut down on government bureaucracy and give the nonprofits an opportunity to determine where money was best spent, she said.
Both Bocchino and Meskers agreed that nonprofits need to collaborate more. The groups should work together instead of compete for limited dollars while offering the same services, Bocchino said.
“We’re losing revenue,” he said. “That piece of pie that we’re going after is going to shrink dramatically over the next two years. If 501(c)3s and nonprofit organizations come together and collaborate a little bit more ... we can make certain we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
Meskers, who has 14 years of experience on the Representative Town Meeting’s Education Committee, said that kind of collaboration could help close the achievement gap and help students in need.
Collaboration must come among human services agencies and nonprofit groups as well as at a town level, with the Board of Education, the RTM and others involved.
“Closing the achievement gap is not only a goal, it is an imperative,” Meskers said. “Closing that achievement gap is crucial to how we define ourselves as a society and how we move forward on the goals of equitable opportunity.”
For education, particularly early education, Floren offered her strong commitment for state funding.
“Although I applaud and totally support the work of the Greenwich United Way and other nonprofit providers in this effort, I don’t think government can abdicate one of its core mission responsibilities: public education,” she said. “I pledge to do everything in my power to reinstate and maintain adequate funding for early childhood education going forward.”
Frantz credited many in the crowd — including representatives from several nonprofits as well as members of the Board of Education, Board of Estimate and Taxation and RTM — for their work to get services to Greenwich’s most vulnerable residents.
“There’s a lot of heroes in this room here today,” he said.
He specifically applauded Shari Shapiro from Kids in Crisis, which lost all of its state funding several years ago and has kept going as the only area 24/7 provider of emergency shelter and counseling services to children, youths and families.
“Shari Shapiro, and I keep coming back to Kids in Crisis, has been dealing with this for years now because the state doesn’t have the money,” Frantz said. “The state completely cut off the funding and Kids in Crisis is still here and still thriving and still helping kids in desperate need. You’re a shining light.”