The Salvation Army's longstanding reputation as a humble charitable service provider has helped it avoid some of the scrutiny and competition that other government contractors receive. But even as a religious organization, the Salvation Army is big business. It is engaged in a range of government functions, paid for with millions in tax dollars or government-controlled fees. It should be more transparent, and it should have to compete for contracts on an even footing with other bidders.
A series by St. Petersburg Times staff writers Sue Carlton, Marlene Sokol and John Martin dispelled the widely held perception of the Salvation Army as a grassroots religious charity that relies on meagerly compensated staff who live not much better than the people they serve. It is a highly professionalized organization with an annual budget in Florida of more than $100 million, and some of its local staff members are housed in high-end homes. The organization drew unfavorable attention after revelations emerged of the free car and $95,000 annual salary it paid to longtime Hillsborough County Commissioner and now state Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa. Norman didn't appear to have many formal duties, and he was involuntarily retired soon after unrelated ethics problems emerged.
For more than two decades, the Salvation Army has held the misdemeanor probation contracts in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties without facing a competitive bidding process. This alone brings the group $3.2 million in annual supervision fees in Hillsborough and $2.4 million in Pinellas. People on probation for minor offenses routinely check in with Salvation Army staff who monitor their progress. In Hillsborough, probationers pay a $55 per month supervision fee, and the contract states that the Salvation Army gets its money before nearly every other fee probationers pay, including victim restitution.
There is every reason to believe that Hillsborough and Pinellas could get a better deal if they sought bids for these services. Other counties are paying less and finding that other providers do better at collecting victim restitution. Pasco County brought misdemeanor probation services in-house in 1993, and last year the program ran a surplus of more than $400,000 that will be returned to the county's general fund. Today's austerity in government should prompt Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to consider alternatives.
Another concern when dealing with a church like the Salvation Army is its lack of transparency. It asserts a religious exemption to avoid filing a public financial statement with the Internal Revenue Service, unlike secular charities and nonprofits that must disclose compensation levels for executives at the top and other key financial details that shed light on the way a group raises and spends money. This opaqueness raises questions about how the Salvation Army does business.
The Salvation Army is not just a small charity that receives loose change in red kettles during Christmas. It is a corporate entity in control of millions of dollars in government funds, and it should be held to the same standards as every other charity and government contractor.