April 24, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Fighting poverty in
Hartford is big business.
Just ask Paul C. Puzzo.
A college dropout who started as a field worker and community
organizer for the Community Renewal Team nearly 40 years ago,
Puzzo rose through the ranks, became CRT's president and chief
executive officer and built a struggling anti-poverty agency
into a $55 million-a-year operation.
He has kept a low profile for the head of one of the region's
largest nonprofit organizations, but Puzzo drew some unwanted
attention recently: Federal auditors said CRT's top salaries,
including more than $300,000 in annual pay and fringe benefits
in 2002 for Puzzo himself, were excessive for an agency that
runs Head Start preschool programs.
The report sent ripples through the agency's Head Start centers,
where teachers - some making less than $20,000 a year - are in
the midst of contract negotiations.
Members of the agency's board of trustees say the federal audit
unfairly compares CRT's salaries to those of executives running
much smaller Head Start agencies. They contend that Puzzo's pay
is appropriate for the CEO of an agency that runs not just Head
Start but more than 30 programs covering housing, nutrition,
employment, criminal justice, youth programs and other matters.
Puzzo defers questions about his salary to the trustees but
makes no apology for expanding CRT's scope, saying the agency's
size is part of its strength.
"Becoming a big business has also brought stability. We
don't lay people off every other week. We don't miss payroll," Puzzo
said from his spacious office in CRT's modern headquarters in
Hartford's North End.
Puzzo, 61, a stocky man with graying hair and a neatly trimmed
beard, has seen his role change dramatically since he joined
the agency in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement
and President Johnson's War on Poverty. He was 21 when he left
the University of Hartford to work in a CRT program counseling
adults for school and employment.
"I dropped out of school and did this instead," he
said in an interview last week. "This seemed more compelling."
CRT was a fledgling agency
then. Over the years it has attracted workers who later played
significant roles in Hartford political circles - including
future mayors Thirman Milner, Carrie Saxon Perry and Eddie
Perez. "It was a very exciting time for
us," Puzzo said, "a time things were changing ... a
time when a number of people emerged and became a generation
of leadership for this community."
After holding several jobs at CRT, Puzzo was named its executive
director in 1983, taking over a program with an $11 million-a-year
budget and a $3 million debt, he said.
Board members credit Puzzo with putting the agency back on solid
"We now run a $50 million-plus operation in large part
because of Paul Puzzo's performance," said Fernando Betancourt,
chairman of CRT's Board of Trustees, after the release of the
Longtime board member Conrad
Mallett said of Puzzo: "Before
he was appointed [CEO], CRT's finances were in a shambles. There
was all kinds of criticisms of end-of-year deficits. ... He cleared
In 1998, CRT also took over a struggling Middlesex County anti-poverty
program to save it from financial collapse.
Mallett said he does not understand
the flap over Puzzo's salary. "People
who run nonprofit agencies are not [running] monasteries," he
said. "They do not take vows of poverty."
Still, the auditor's disclosure of Puzzo's salary raised eyebrows.
"I was angry, and then I wanted to cry," said Dee
Orzel, a seven-year veteran Head Start teacher making slightly
more than $11 an hour at a CRT preschool center in Middletown. "When
you see something like that, it makes you feel unappreciated."
Teachers received a 1.6 percent cost of living increase this
year and have been in negotiations for a new contract for more
than a year, union officials said.
Orzel, whose job runs 39 weeks
a year, said her pay is stretched thin by the cost of college
courses she is taking to improve her training. Her colleagues,
too, were upset at Puzzo's salary, she said. "They were
furious. There are no raises, and he's living large."
"The salaries we pay teachers are comparable to or higher
than what's paid in the region," Puzzo said. "We don't
have the dollars ... to pay a higher salary. ... We are committed
to providing as much as we can for those teachers."
The recent criticism of Puzzo's compensation by the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services was based on his $321,350 in salary
and benefits in 2002 - 2.5 times the average salary of the chief
executives of other Connecticut nonprofit agencies that provided
federal Head Start services to pre-school children, according
to the audit.
CRT's tax return for the 2003 calendar year lists Puzzo's salary
at $254,375 plus $120,937 in benefits and deferred compensation
and a $9,164 expense account, for a total of more than $384,000.
"If [his pay] is approaching $400,000, it's one of the
highest in the country" among CEOs whose agencies run Head
Start programs, said Windy Hill, associate commissioner in charge
of the federal government's Head Start Bureau.
With such a large discrepancy
between executive salaries and those of frontline workers,
such as teachers, "you have
to think about whether this is an appropriate strategy for an
anti-poverty organization - to turn it into a corporation," Hill
Aside from questioning the size of executive salaries, the recent
HHS audit said that CRT claimed $177,867 in improperly documented
credit card charges for travel, meals, club memberships and other
expenses over a three-year period. CRT officials concede that
their record-keeping should have been better but say all expenditures
were related to business.
The audit was not the first time CRT had run into criticism.
An earlier federal audit found
chronic under-enrollment from 1999 to 2001 in CRT's Head Start
program, but federal officials say the agency has corrected
that problem. Another federal review in 2002 identified deficiencies
in management, including problems at Head Start centers in
East Hartford and Bristol, saying CRT "has
ignored its financial responsibility to ensure that [those centers]
have the resources available to them to run quality programs." Puzzo
said those issues have been resolved.
Puzzo, who lives with his wife in a modest home near Lake Pocotopaug
in East Hampton and owns a condo in Florida, says there are two
sides to the growth of CRT into the complex enterprise it is
today. For one thing, he no longer has time to work directly
"I don't have the satisfaction of saying I did something
good for that person - that mom who gets a job or that child
who gets a scholarship," he said. "It's always a balancing
act when you become a big business. Are you losing touch? But
it also gives you the ability to provide quality."
Agencies such as CRT should be measured on whether the community
is satisfied with their performance, says David A. Bradley, a
lobbyist with the National Community Action Foundation.
In recent years, CRT has continued to expand, with new services
such as free Internet access and tax preparation advice for low-income
neighborhoods. The agency also recently opened a 100-unit assisted
living center in Hartford for the low-income elderly.
"They are entrepreneurial," Bradley said. "They
do a lot of different things that I admire. Paul is creative
that way. The agency is a sizable economic force in the low-income
State Sen. Eric Coleman, who
represents Hartford, said, "I've
observed CRT has taken on more of a corporate aura. ... I don't
know whether that's a criticism. ... There seems to be a perception
that what CRT is supposed to be doing is getting done."
The Rev. Cornell Lewis, a
community activist, gives Puzzo good marks for "trying
to steer CRT in a direction to be really involved in the community."
Lewis, a former member of
the CRT board, said, "There's
something to be said about the pressure of running an agency
and everything that goes with it. ... There's a certain amount
of abuse that goes along with the job."
Is the job worth $384,000?
"I have to think about it," Lewis said. "That's
a lot of money."
Courant Staff Writer Mike Swift contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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