Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary to pay $21,336 in back wages after violations found

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has agreed to pay nine employees a total of $21,336 in back wages after a federal investigation found it violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division concluded the sanctuary failed to pay some employees for several weeks, which resulted in minimum wage violations.

The agency also found that some employees were paid set salaries without taking into account the actual number of hours they worked. The result was that their pay fell below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Those employees also went unpaid for overtime hours they worked.

"Employers are legally obligated to pay for all hours worked, including overtime when employees work more than 40 hours in a week," said James Schmidt, district director of the division's Tampa District Office.

Sanctuary director Ralph Heath could not be reached for comment.

The sanctuary, which Heath, 67, founded in 1971, is supported by donations. Records filed with the IRS show it had total revenues of about $1.47 million and total expenses of about $1.44 million in 2010, the most recent figures available. It is unclear how many employees currently work there.

Since its founding, the sanctuary has grown into an avian rehabilitation center with emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. The sanctuary's website, seabirdsanctuary.com, says it takes in 30 to 50 injured birds daily.

But for all the successes, Heath has several times found himself the center of controversies that ranged from charges that he overstated the effect of cold weather on birds in a fundraising letter to questions about expenditures and money management.

In 2007, the sanctuary was forced to close for two days after it failed to pay workers' compensation insurance. Three years later, the sanctuary hit rough financial times caused in part by the recession and escalating costs. There was talk of drastically cutting back its services.

This year, the controversies seemed to mount.

The IRS filed three liens totaling about $187,700 for unpaid payroll taxes, according to county records. All remain unpaid, according to county records. The Labor Department began its investigation last month.

Former employees complained of poor fiscal management and said that they went unpaid and that health insurance was allowed to lapse with no notice.

It was also revealed that Heath personally benefited from property tax breaks he was not entitled to. The breaks, which totaled almost $1 million over 22 years, were the result of a glitch in the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office.

The property appraiser had mistakenly listed four beach parcels Heath owned as nontaxable because he had leased them to the sanctuary. But the land was not entitled to the exemption extended to nonprofits because Heath, and not the sanctuary, was the owner.

The mistake was discovered last year when Heath transferred most real estate to Seaside Land Investments LLC, a for-profit Texas corporation established by two of his sons. The county began charging property taxes to Seaside, which has appealed both that decision and the value the appraiser placed on the property.

Property appraiser Pam Dubov has said she will not ask Heath to pay the back taxes because the mistake was hers and not Heath's.

Heath conceded last month that the sanctuary is facing financial difficulties. Not only have employees and taxes gone unpaid, the sanctuary owes tens of thousands to the company that supplies food for the birds, he said. Heath said then that he wanted to move the sanctuary to a volunteer-based operation to cut back on personnel costs, the biggest expenditure.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.

Editor's note

This story has been changed to reflect the following clarification: The U.S. Department of Labor found that the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary failed to pay some of its employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Florida's minimum wage is $7.67 per hour. A story Friday was unclear on the difference.

Comments
Career Q&A: Sharpen interview skills to overcome impression of shyness

Career Q&A: Sharpen interview skills to overcome impression of shyness

Q: At the end of a recent interview, the manager told me that I would not be getting the job. He said I wasn’t a good fit for the position because I was shy. As a naturally introverted person, I found this very discouraging. How can I avoid similar p...
Updated: 10 minutes ago
Lawmakers call for additional investigations into Tampa Bay’s two CareerSource boards

Lawmakers call for additional investigations into Tampa Bay’s two CareerSource boards

Federal and state lawmakers are calling on Congress and the Florida House of Representatives to investigate whether two regional workforce centers inflated the number of people they helped find jobs. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D–St. Petersburg, and sta...
Updated: 28 minutes ago
Undersea quake causes fear of tsunami in Alaska; Kentucky teen kills 2 classmates in shooting; ex-gymnast tells Nassar: ‘You didn’t heal me. You only hurt me’; more in U.S. news

Undersea quake causes fear of tsunami in Alaska; Kentucky teen kills 2 classmates in shooting; ex-gymnast tells Nassar: ‘You didn’t heal me. You only hurt me’; more in U.S. news

AlaskaUndersea quake causes panicA powerful undersea earthquake sent Alaskans fumbling for suitcases and racing to evacuation centers in the middle of the night after a cellphone alert warned a tsunami could hit communities along the state’s southern...
Updated: 2 hours ago
MacDill crews shift from Islamic State battle to join winter fight against Taliban

MacDill crews shift from Islamic State battle to join winter fight against Taliban

Now that the fight against the largely defeated Islamic State is winding down, the U.S. Air Force is turning its efforts toward the Taliban and moving aircraft and crews to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.Crews and a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refue...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Deputies identify 11-month-old who drowned, no other details released

Deputies identify 11-month-old who drowned, no other details released

BRANDON — The 11-month-old girl who drowned in an apartment complex pond on Monday was identified as Deleah Morgan by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Tuesday.Deputies released no other details about the incident or the ongoing investigation....
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: A good first step in restoring the right to vote

Editorial: A good first step in restoring the right to vote

Allowing felons a meaningful chance to reclaim their right to vote and rejoin civic life is edging closer to reality in Florida. On Tuesday the state announced that a yearslong petition drive to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot h...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Man, 60, arrested in fatal shooting of his neighbor in Holiday

HOLIDAY — A 60-year-old man fatally shot his neighbor on Tuesday while the younger man stood outside his own home, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.Deputies said Qiu Feng Kek shot Edward Tudor, 37, outside 3519 Richboro Drive. He died a...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Avalanche causes evacuations in Italy; indictment says Madsen abused journalist Wall before killing her; more in world news

Avalanche causes evacuations in Italy; indictment says Madsen abused journalist Wall before killing her; more in world news

Italy150 evacuated after avalancheFour helicopters evacuated 150 people trapped in a four-star hotel and other remote structures Tuesday after an avalanche, authorities said, as heavy snow caused disruption across the Alps. The Langtauferer Hotel, lo...
Updated: 3 hours ago
ScarFace the Osprey scarfs up prized neckwear to make Coquina Key home

ScarFace the Osprey scarfs up prized neckwear to make Coquina Key home

ST. PETERSBURGSome 25 feet up in the air, towering over Coquina Key, sits an osprey surveying the park below.It is on the hunt for any bit of material so it can prepare a nest for future hatchlings. Whether it be sticks, hay, palm leaves, a trash bag...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Special counsel questions Sessions; Is Trump coming soon?

Special counsel questions Sessions; Is Trump coming soon?

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for hours in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, the Justice Department said Tuesday, as prosecutors moved closer to a possible interview with President Donald Trump about whether he ...
Updated: 3 hours ago