Loss of grant could hit services in Waterbury, Torrington, Thomaston areas

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Waterbury Republican-American
Waterbury, CT

WATERBURY — Thirty-two years at the wheel of New Opportunities Inc., has taught its captain to weather many a budget storm.

But James Gatling sees a tempest on the horizon that may devastate a nonprofit agency that has provided social services in the city and beyond for almost half a century.

"In the past, I was successfully fighting it without having to come to the community for support. Even my staff never realized their jobs were threatened, because we took care of it," said Gatling, president and CEO of the agency. "Now I'm letting them know this is a different one. This is the tsunami coming now."

The "tsunami" is the proposed cut of an $800,000 federal Community Development Block Grant that handles the administrative needs of virtually all of the $60 million in social services the agency provides in Waterbury, Torrington, Thomaston, Meriden and their surrounding towns. The feds are looking to slice the CDBG by 50 percent.

But Gatling doesn't see it only as a budget cut. To him, it would slash into the fiber of the community — hurting the "recently poor" victims of harsh economic times across the agency's service area, as well as the dilapidated industrial neighborhood in Waterbury where New Opportunities made its home.

ESSENTIALLY AN ANTI-POVERTY AGENCY, NEW OPPORTUNITIES PROVIDES SERVICES such as employment assistance, child care, residential housing and energy assistance not only to the long-term needy, but to many who are victims of the recession.

"I see a community where people have gotten the education, made the right moves, but lost their jobs and lost their homes and they found themselves in need of the services New Opportunities provides," Gatling said. "What's going to happen to these people?"

He also worries about what's going to happen to their communities. In Waterbury, New Opportunities took over an old factory building on North Elm Street, and its subsequent renovation in the 1970s sparked a rejuvenation of the neighborhood, decreasing blight, he said. New Opportunities owns other run-down structures in the neighborhood and wants to similarly transform them, but funding cuts could threaten those plans, he said.

THE AGENCY HAS SURVIVED DRASTIC CUTS in the past, but often at the sacrifice of valuable programs.

In 2003, when $350,000 in state aid was eliminated, staffers at five after-school centers supported by New Opportunities lost their jobs and one center closed.

Gatling noted New Opportunities also once had a summer youth employment program that provided temporary jobs to thousands of teens. When budget cuts did away with that, he said, the repercussions were obvious.

"When all that was eliminated, you could see a few years after the gangs coming to Waterbury. The state and federal government saved money, but they spent that money and more on youth incarceration," he said. "Sitting in my chair, I can actually see all of this unfolding."

So can others. State Rep. Larry Butler, D-72nd District, serves on the House Human Services Subcommittee and said Gatling's fears are well-founded.

"All you have to look at is what's going on in Washington, D.C., the battle over the budget, and see that there's no longer just a scare, it's a real threat that some significant cuts may come," Butler said. "I don't think people are aware of the imminent threat. ... It's all hands on deck. We need to fight for this agency and agencies like it all over the state."

Ironically, Gatling said, it is New Opportunities' longstanding success in the community that has kept it, and its needs, out of the public eye.

"I look at it as if maybe we've been quiet and doing things so well that people don't recognize the impact of it," he said. "I think people have gotten complacent. The community has to be energized to keep it here. We have to advocate and make our case."

To that end, Butler and several other politicians encourage the community to join them in a forum today at Mount Olive AME Zion Church on Pearl Street at 6 p.m., where the proposed cuts and their eventual impact will be discussed.

In addition to Butler, one of U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy's staff will be on hand, as will school board member Karen Harvey and Alderman Joyce Petteway, who drafted a resolution urging President Barack Obama and Congress to preserve CDBG funding.

Gatling is hopeful the meeting will raise awareness.

"I feel bad about these proposals out there, but I also feel optimistic there's some common good in people, that are rallying to make this happen," Gatling said. "If there was a time we needed help, it's now."

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