Charity 10%, firefighters union 90%
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- The callers ask for donations for Camp Hopetake, a summer retreat where children burned by fire get a once-a-year escape from the rest of the world.
The Tampa firefighters union raises more than a half-million dollars in the name of these children every year.
But most of the money doesn't go to the kids. Last year, for every $100 donated, less than $10 went to Camp Hopetake and other charities. Ninety percent went to the union.
Instead of expanding charity programs, the union has expanded its reserve fund to $363,442 -- four times what the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance says nonprofit groups should keep. Without raising a single dollar more, the reserve could run the camp for 15 years.
"How can you feel good about a program that doesn't put enough back into the community?" said Karl Schmitt, president of the Hillsborough County Firefighters Local 2294, a sister organization that has fought against Tampa's phone solicitations.
The Better Business Bureau says fundraisers should spend no more than 35 percent on fundraising; the union spent 90 percent last year. The bureau says unions should give at least 60 percent of money raised to charity; the union gave less than 10 percent. It says unions should keep a reserve to pay for two years of spending; the union's would pay for eight.
The president of the Tampa union, Al Suarez, said the large reserve means that even if fundraising slows, the union could run Camp Hopetake for a decade. He can promise kids they can attend the camp, pronounced HOPE-u-tawkee, throughout their childhood.
There is nothing to stop the union from using its reserves as it pleases, but Suarez said the money will be spent on charity.
He agreed the union could devote more of its donations to charity but said he is "still damn proud of what we do over here."
"These programs may change people's lives. I think (donors) will say, "It's still worth it."'
When the Internal Revenue Service asked the union about its political expenditures, union officers signed an oath that in recent years, they had spent nothing on politics. That's not true.
Some years, the union gave more than $10,000 to local candidates -- not counting money spent on phone banks. The union also has contributed to politicians in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Fort Myers. In 2000, the union worked on the failed attempt to repeal term limits for Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.
Most of the union's political punch comes from its computerized phone bank. The union rents its phone bank and 12 to 14 employees to help friendly politicians. The automated dialing system can call 10,000 voters in a few hours.
Among those who have used the phone bank are Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner, state Rep. Sandy Murman, Tampa City Council member Rose Ferlita and Tampa mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn.
Friendly candidates get the phone bank at a discount rate. It would cost a candidate three or four times more on the open market.
Suarez has offered the phone bank to unions across Florida -- for a price. In a November letter to other unions, Suarez said the phone bank helped elect Greco in 1995.
"Our efforts were rewarded when, immediately upon taking office, Mayor Greco appointed our choice for Fire Chief, Pete Botto," the union letter said.
It said Greco agreed to wage increases and added a 3.5 percent multiplier to the union's pension plan.
Suarez said he doesn't know why the union didn't tell the IRS about its political work. He said he didn't know the union should have paid taxes on political expenditures.
Suarez could not tell the Times exactly what it spent on politics; he provided partial information, some of which didn't match campaign finance reports.
Nor could the union's accountant, James R. Lambeth of Tampa, explain the union's incorrect answers on tax returns.
When firefighters call for donations, they say they keep expenses down by running their own fundraising operation.
"We are NOT a fundraising company!" solicitors say, according to a phone script. "We do the work ourselves so that the money stays with the firefighters and our programs for kids and burned victims."
(The pitch by mail says, in bold print, that firefighters "DO NOT" use a professional fundraising company).
"That made me think the cost of their fundraising would be less," said 77-year-old Peggy Doll of Old Carrollwood, who gives every year.
By nonprofit fundraising standards, the union's costs are high.
"It seems rather excessive, even for telemarketing," said Paulette Maehara, president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, who reviewed the union's latest tax return and other documents at the Times' request.
Here are percentages other nonprofit organizations have spent on fundraising and administrative costs:
The United Way of Hillsborough County, 13.5 percent. (It funds only other nonprofits that keep expenses below 25 percent; most keep costs to 15 percent, said chief financial officer Pamela Reeder).
The Spring of Tampa Bay, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, about 11 percent.
The Children's Home Society of Florida, which runs Joshua House, about 3 percent.
Metropolitan Ministries, about 30 percent.
The Tampa firefighters union president said it's impossible to lower costs. "There is only so much you can touch," Suarez said. "The best we can do is a 75 percent overhead."
He said the union doesn't spend donations to help run the union, though one sentence in a 25-line, single-spaced thank you letter that the union sends donors says their money can go to "labor relations assistance."
The Times found that donations paid the union's $3,847 property tax bill, $351 trash removal fees, $612 cable bill and $1,430 to design the union Web site.
"It's negligible," Suarez said.
Suarez said other firefighter unions do even worse than the 90 percent of donations his union spent on expenses. According to recent filings, here are what some other law-enforcement-related organizations have spent on expenses:
The Police Athletic of St. Petersburg, 59 percent.
The Police Athletic League of Tampa, 68 percent.
The Florida Police & Firefighters Foundation, based in Bradenton, 82 percent.
Last year, the Pinellas County Council of Firefighters signed agreements that give telemarketers 77 to 80 percent of the money they raise on the council's behalf.
Critics distinguish what the Tampa firefighters union has done: It has not hired a telemarketer, it handles its own solicitations. They say that makes the firefighters' high expenses worse.
"I passionately believe that what is going on is wrong," said Schmitt, the county firefighters union head. "It is just not right to take advantage of charitable-minded people who trust their firefighters enough to give as they do."
The phone bank
Anthony Alonso, a consultant for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, says professional fundraising "takes personnel that know what they are doing."
At the phone bank inside the Tampa union's office, some 16 part-time workers make calls from handless telephones. Most are college students looking for temporary or part-time work.
They are paid by the hour, $6.50 to start. For raising $600 a day, a solicitor gets a $15 bonus. For $700, he gets $20. For $800, he gets $55.
"It is kind of like a percentage," said solicitation manager Stephen Richner, who started at the shop after high school.
The Association of Fundraising Professionals won't let its members pay commissions.
"If you are motivated by the percentage of dollars you raise, you create personal gain as a motive," Maehara said. "We do not believe philanthropy is for personal gain."
Suarez said the union's commissions are too small to prompt solicitors to pressure donors. "We have zero tolerance for pressure tactics."
Some of those who have been called say they thought they were talking to a firefighter.
"I was told it was not a telemarketing company," said Tom Veit, a Temple Terrace resident. "It was actually being run by firefighters."
Maehara of the Association of Fundraising Professionals got the same impression when she looked at letters the union sends potential contributors.
"That told me they are not hiring outside people," she said. "They may be using volunteer firefighters."
County residents from Carrollwood, Valrico and Plant City complain solicitors make it seem like they're calling from the local fire station -- not Tampa's fire union, which doesn't service their areas.
"I listened to their spiel," said Frank Hagen Jr., who lives in Citrus Park. "They were saying they were Hillsborough County firefighters, and I knew they were not."
How did he know that? "Because I'm a Hillsborough County firefighter," he said.
Jennifer George said the callers told her they are "the boys who come to my house when I call 911."
Suarez acknowledged the union sometimes calls outside the city, but he said that's because many parts of the county and city run close together.
"Tampa is Hillsborough County, Hillsborough County is Tampa. They are interchangeable," Suarez said. "Honest mistakes are going to happen."
He said the union would fire a solicitor who misidentifies himself or misleads a donor: "We have a zero tolerance policy."
The script that the union has written for its calls starts with, "This is the firefighters and paramedics #754."
The script never mentions the word "Tampa." It says the union is calling "area residents here in Hillsborough County."
The Hillsborough County firefighters union got out of the solicitation business in 2001. Schmitt, the new president, said he couldn't stomach lending the firefighters' name to fundraising companies that keep 80 percent of donations.
In October, after Schmitt complained about Tampa's fundraising, Suarez offered him a deal: For every call made in Hillsborough County, the city union would pay the county union a percentage.
County firefighters said no.
They have since filed two complaints with the International Association of Firefighters over the city union's fundraising. The IAFF dismissed the first complaint, saying it didn't have jurisdiction to police the issue. The second complaint is pending.
Suarez said he doesn't understand why Schmitt is meddling in the city's fundraising.
"It's jealousy," he said. "Why the heck do they care?"
-- Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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