Residents digging into their pockets to help what they believe is a worthwhile charity should have confidence most of their contribution will be put to good use.
But multiple firefighting associations in Pasco, Hernando and other counties are using a New Port Richey telemarketer that is keeping 84 percent of the donated money. In all, professional fundraisers at Bay Area Council pocketed more than $400,000 of the $479,000 residents contributed in 2007 to benefit professional firefighting groups in Spring Hill, New Port Richey, Zephyrhills, Pasco and Hernando counties and agencies in Polk, Hillsborough and Citrus counties, according to a Dec. 5 report in Hernando Today.
That means of every $1 contributed, only 16 cents made it to the unionized firefighters who, in turn, are supposed to use the money for charitable purposes. Last week, the Spring Hill union president told the Times his group supports the Explorers youth firefighting program and Senior Rx, a prescription drug program for seniors.
Clearly, though, the real beneficiary is Bay Area Council and its exorbitant overhead. By comparison, administrative and fundraising costs at the United of Way of Pasco are 23 percent. The standard for the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance calls for fundraising and overhead expenses not to exceed 35 percent of the money raised from donors.
Telemarketers are protected by the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that states can press fraud charges against fundraisers who deceive potential donors about how much of a contribution really goes to charity. The ruling allowed Illinois to pursue a telemarketing firm that pocketed 85 percent of the $8 million raised on behalf of a Vietnam veterans' charity.
While the state registration for Bay Area Council is in question, its technique does not appear to be illegal. Regardless, the fundraising group drew scrutiny last week during Hernando's annual legislative delegation meeting after Ron Wegner of Hudson brought the group's tactics to the attention of Sen. Mike Fasano.
In his mother's mail, Wegner had discovered an invoice, resembling a bill, payable to the Spring Hill Association of Firefighters and Paramedics for $30. Wegner's mother, Ruth, died earlier this year age the age of 94. Wegner, believing the group acted unscrupulously, contacted the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Fasano asked Spring Hill Chief Mike Rampino about it during the delegation meeting. Rampino emphasized the publicly supported department does not receive the donated money and is not affiliated with the effort. Later, in a typical Spring Hill Fire Department brouhaha, the chief and an elected fire commissioner disagreed over who knew about the union's fund-raising.
That is problematic. The elected commission shouldn't be in the dark on issues that can tarnish the department and potentially hinder the agency's own ability to ask for the public's help to balance its own books. Rampino, likewise, should be concerned about his department's name — even if it's the unionized workers — being used to prop up donations, the vast majority of which never make it to a charitable cause.
A fire department still trying to build public confidence in its ability to self-govern without Hernando County oversight would be wise to distance itself from a business cold calling senior citizens for cash. Other departments' firefighters, too, should examine the wisdom of allowing an outside group to take 84 percent of the money pledged toward charity.