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Spring Hill Fire charity solicitations questioned

BROOKSVILLE — Ron Wegner was going through his mother's mail earlier this year when he came across what looked like a bill.

Ruth Wegner, it appeared, was on the hook to the Spring Hill Association of Firefighters & Paramedics for $30.

Turns out the invoice was seeking to collect what Ruth Wegner, a resident of a Spring Hill assisted living facility, had apparently pledged to donate on the phone at some point.

She died this past Mother's Day at the age of 94, but her son's anger at what he calls misleading fundraising tactics lives on.

"It smells like a bill, it looks like a bill, and people like my mom look at that and they just pay it," said Wegner, an anesthesiologist from Hudson.

The association is the firefighters and paramedics union, Local 2974. The union hired Bay Area Council, a not-for-profit group, to raise money for its charities and causes.

The union sends money from the donations to charities, said Spring Hill union president Scott Edmisten. Among them are the Explorers, a youth firefighting program; Senior Rx, which helps buy prescription drugs for seniors; and the Wounded Warrior Project, Edmisten said.

"We benefit in the fact that we're donating to the community and getting our name out there," Edmisten said.

In good years, the effort brings in $10,000, he said. More recently, the figure is closer to $5,000.

Bay Area Council employees use the phone book and make cold calls, said Bill Slack, fundraising manager for the council's Spring Hill office.

The caller asks for a voluntary contribution. If the person on the line agrees, an invoice with the agreed amount is mailed to the would-be donor.

The invoice comes with a letter that opens with the salutation "Dear Firefighter Supporter" and states the donation "will benefit local Spring Hill firefighters and paramedics and the entire Spring Hill area."

"Unfortunately, the phone book doesn't tell us anyone's profession or age," Slack said. "It doesn't tell us if someone has dementia."

A donor who has a change of heart once the invoice arrives can trash it, Slack said.

Wegner fired off a letter to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services requesting an investigation into what he called deceptive practices meant to trick the elderly. He also contacted state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

The method of calling first and then sending an invoice isn't illegal as long as the group is registered with the state, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the department.

"It sounds like they're a bit aggressive and ham-handed in the way they're doing this," he said. "That's not a violation."

A letter sent with the group's invoices says donors can call the state's Consumer Services Division to check its registration.

Records at the Florida Division of Corporations show the group's incorporation is inactive.

The group, which lists a mailing address in New Port Richey, applied for reinstatement in 2007 but is no longer shown as current with the corporation division.

Its listed agent, Ron Howell of St. Petersburg, did not return calls Wednesday afternoon.

Contributors are asked to make out checks to the Spring Hill Association of Firefighters & Paramedics. It's unclear how much the Bay Area Council receives for its services.

Slack, in an interview earlier Wednesday, said he didn't know.

Edmisten, who just took over the reins as union leader, said he would be looking into the arrangement with the group. Former union president Troy Hagar did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Fasano, during a legislative delegation meeting Tuesday, asked Spring Hill fire Chief Mike Rampino about Wegner's complaint.

Rampino emphasized that the department is not affiliated with the effort and does not receive any of the money. Rampino said the Spring Hill Fire Rescue commission is aware of the effort.

But Commissioner Rob Giammarco said he didn't know and said he had concerns.

"If the firefighter union wants to do this, that's all well and good, but if you're using Spring Hill Fire in the letterhead, it looks like we're sanctioning that," Giammarco said.

"In my opinion, if they're using our name, we as a board should know how much money is collected and who in the community has benefited."

Giammarco said he would bring up the issue at the board's meeting Wednesday.

Hernando fire Chief Mike Nickerson said he has discouraged that organization's union from doing phone solicitations, but the union does do so anyway.

This issue should serve as a lesson for solicitors and would-be donors, Fasano said. He said his elderly mother receives similar invoices.

"Unfortunately, some of those solicitors don't wait for that person to say yes," he said. "I know my mom is not one to say yes over the phone, but we get invoices from different nonprofit organizations.

"You can only hope the nonprofit organizations train their callers when you're dealing with anybody, but more importantly senior citizens, that they understand this a donation to a fire union or police union and you're not obligated to have to pay this."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Spring Hill Fire charity solicitations questioned 12/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 8:23pm]
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