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County forces mission to halt fund-raising solicitations

The Rev. Mike Greer says he came to St. Petersburg determined to rebuild a troubled rescue mission and make a fresh start ministering to "the least, the last and the lost."

It hasn't happened that way.

The mission has new management, a new name _ St. Pete City Mission, instead of Downtown Rescue Mission _ and the same aggressive fund-raising tactics that helped stir suspicion last year.

The mission is off to a rocky start with the county's Consumer Protection Office, which has ordered it to stop soliciting contributions in Pinellas until it obtains a solicitation permit.

The mission at least temporarily pulled an ad it planned to run in the Times, but Greer said it was too late to stop 200,000 direct mail letters from hitting mailboxes throughout the county this week. Consumer Protection officials are not sure what to tell people inquiring about the group.

"There's no history there," said Sheryl Lord, Consumer Protection director. "There are a lot of unanswered questions, and because of that I don't feel comfortable telling the public that this is a good thing."

Greer, a veteran of rescue missions nationwide, said he was stunned to learn how much suspicion and mistrust surrounded the former Downtown Rescue Mission, which last year launched a nearly identical fund-raising campaign despite having no permanent shelter to house and feed homeless people.

Now located in the former Driftwood Motel at 1600 34th St. S, it is being operated by the Los Angeles Mission, a 48-year-old Christian group recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt.

A preliminary budget filed with the state and county indicates that the St. Pete City Mission expected to take in $700,000 this year, including $130,500 from the Los Angeles Mission. It shows just $26,150 going directly to client services such as food and housing, though Greer said the budget format is misleading and that it should have counted more expenses as program services.

When the budget is revised, Greer said, it will show that no more than 18 percent of the budget will go toward fund raising and administrative expenses. By comparison, Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa budgets 11 percent for fund raising and administrative costs, and the St. Petersburg Free Clinic's Beacon House budgets 9 percent for administration.

The St. Pete City Mission has four paid employees: Greer and his wife and a chaplain and his wife, for whom roughly $140,000 is budgeted.

Wednesday evening about 15 people were eating a spaghetti dinner there, but Greer said as many as 75 people are served throughout the day, and that he had 49 people staying in 22 motel rooms earlier this week.

Beacon House, which operates on $129,000 annually, serves about 120 people dinner five nights a week and shelters about 10,000 people annually.

Greer holds a master's degree in public administration from Arizona State University, as well as a master's of divinity from Biola University in California. He has spent a decade working with missions from Alaska to New Orleans.

"Mike is a man of integrity, I can tell you that," said Mac Thornton, executive director of the New Orleans Mission. "He puts his whole heart and life into this."

Another new affiliate of the Los Angeles Mission, the Tampa City Mission, also raised eyebrows recently after sending 500,000 letters seeking donations for the virtually unknown group. Hillsborough does not require local solicitation permits, as Pinellas does, but the Tampa mission's letter improperly went out before it had registered with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The registration was approved this week.