Amid recent scandals and a potential budget cut, the Outback Teen Center's board of directors has started an online petition asking the town to support the facility.
The move comes weeks after the town's Health and Human Services Department announced it was cutting its annual contribution to the Outback by 12.5 percent. If the budget is approved as is, the Outback would receive $17,500 from the town for 2014-15. Last year, it received $20,000, and the year before it got $28,000.
"This will negatively impact the longevity of the Center," the petition states. "Close to $2 million was invested by parents and the community to build the facility 12 years ago, and it would be a travesty to lose it. By signing this petition you are indicating that you value the Outback and consider it an important asset for our youth and community."
The $17,500 must still be approved by the Board of Finance and Town Council, though the latter does not have the power to increase any budgets.
Outback's Community Director Christine Simmons said the amount the Human Services Department is proposing to give them represents less than a 10th of the center's $250,000 annual budget. The rest of the funding is raised through private donations. Percentage wise, the center receives a smaller town contribution than do the teen centers in Darien and Wilton, according to Outback documents.
"It is very difficult to provide programming for our young people with the town support of less than 9 percent of the Outback's budgeted income," Simmons said. "Our Outback board members and our Outback staff work hard and devote many hours of time to raise money for operating expenses and programs."
Human Services Director Carol McDonald declined to comment specifically why her department has decided to cut funding for the Outback, but she said it supports the teen center.
"Human Services supports all the Outback's endeavors," she said in an email. "Our Youth Services staff continues to work jointly with them as well as other youth providers in New Canaan."
Dividing the pie
In a January presentation to the town governing bodies, McDonald said the department did the best it could to shift money around instead of requesting a big increase. Her department is requesting a $690,554 budget for 2014-15, a 1.5 percent increase over 2013-14.
The department would spend $154,000 of that money to help fund several agencies, including the Outback, New Canaan Cares, Domestic Violence Crisis Center, Norwalk Transit District and Getabout. This year, Health and Human Services is not requesting an increase to this budget line, but McDonald said the money was shifted around to help support a new effort by New Canaan Cares.
Due to the changes, New Canaan Cares would receive an $8,000 increase in funds from the department -- it received $10,000 in 2013-14 -- while Outback and the Norwalk Transit District would see a $2,500 decrease. Getabout would see a $2,000 decrease.
"We look at that every year and we also look at what is going on in the community," McDonald said at the presentation. "And we try to use (the funds) in the best way possible."
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Simmons said she believes town officials could be doing more to support the Outback.
"It is a shame that the current (Board of Finance and Town Council) members have not been supportive of our needs like in other towns," Simmons said. "Over the last three budgets years, they have nearly cut our budget by 50 percent. That is not right or fair."
Also during the presentation, Youth and Family Services Coordinator Jackie D'Louhy said the increase for New Canaan Cares would help the agency hire a part-time person to promote work on underage drinking programs in New Canaan.
The petition, which had more than 150 signatures Wednesday, also states that New Canaan elected officials have asked the teen center's board of directors "for evidence that the Outback is important to New Canaan and that its citizens support it."
No officials contacted by the New Canaan News confirmed the statement.
Lacking a clear mission
Though he said he did not make such a request, Town Councilman Roger Williams said there are a number of reasons why town officials would be reluctant to fund the Outback.
"There are enough questions about their goals, priorities, management," Williams said.
In recent months, at least two scandals have caused some trouble for the teen center.
A high school dance party for 200 teens the Outback hosted in October ended up with one in the hospital and five others sent home for alcohol consumption. The party stopped after two police officers, who were chaperoning the event, saw a 15-year-old boy vomit on the floor inside the facility. The officers called emergency services and the boy was transported by ambulance to Norwalk Hospital. Following the incident, dance organizers used a Breathalyzer to test some of the 200 teens in attendance. They found that five more youths had consumed alcohol, and their parents were called to pick them up. Outback officials said no alcoholic drinks were found on the premises.
Program director's termination
Days after the event, two new directors took over, though their hirings were unrelated to the party incident. Simmons was named the community director and Andrew Barer was appointed the new youth program director.
In January, however, Barer was terminated one day after New Canaan police began an investigation of him. He's accused of making inappropriate comments to teenagers at Saxe Middle School, according to a police report.
The investigation is complete and a warrant for his arrest was issued this week, police said Wednesday. Chief Leon Krolikowski said police plan to charge Barer with second-degree breach of peace.
At the time, Sangeeta Appel, president of the center's board of directors, would neither confirm or deny that the investigation played a role in his termination.
Programs geared toward adults
Williams also said the Outback's programs are more for adults.
"Everything tends to be tailored toward adults now," he said. "If you look at their programs today, there's a lot of cooking classes for adults, yoga classes for adults. It's sort of hard to find something for teens. It makes us question `what is their goal?' "
Outback officials disagreed, "Well-attended student enrichment programs include cooking, skateboarding, crafts, yoga, art, and self-defense in addition to leadership and social programs for middle school and high school students," the board of directors wrote.
According to Outback documents, the center sees an average of 600 visits every month.
The Outback opened in January 2001, after private donors raised about $2 million over five years to build the facility.
McDonald said she recognizes the value of the teen center in New Canaan.
"The Outback offers many interesting and exciting events for the youth in town," she wrote. "Our commission also supports the Outback and the benefit they provide the community."
Appel did not return a call for comment.
First Selectman Robert Mallozzi declined to comment.