In my April 1998 column describing the legal limits on political campaign activities, I focused on individual firefighters, especially those employed by local governments. I urged that the fire service, both institutionally and individually, be an active participant in the political process so that the concerns of the fire service are addressed by our political leaders.
Eylersburg, PA, Assistant Fire Chief Robert Dluge, however, has identified another important, and very different, facet to the question of fire service political action. As he points out, there are other important concerns that must be addressed by the thousands of volunteer fire departments that enjoy the status of being charitable organizations.
Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, these departments are exempt from paying taxes and the donations that they receive are tax deductions for their donors. For many departments (such as my own) that rely on donations to fund their operations, this charitable tax status can be the "life blood" of the department. Any threat to this tax status must be taken extremely seriously.
Dluge is an attorney who represents a number of volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania. He notes that, "under Internal Revenue Service rulings, a 501(c)(3) organization is not in any way to influence legislation or engage in political activities." Organizations that do engage in political activities run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status, an extremely serious consequence. There are some obvious limitations. Charitable donations can never be used to finance campaign activities (through either monetary or "in kind" contributions). Tax-exempt organizations cannot publicly endorse a candidate or party slate.
But, IRS rulings make it clear that this is a broad prohibition that includes other, more indirect initiatives. Political activities include participating, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign, whether supporting or opposing a candidate. For example, the IRS would consider an attack upon a candidate, even when the department endorses no one, as political activity. In a similar vein, the IRS has ruled that a charitable organization (not a fire department) violated the rule by rating candidates for state office.
Some departments, as a community service, sponsor "candidates' night" forums for the purpose of letting citizens meet local candidates. Public forums such as this are not considered participation in political campaign activities if they provide a fair and impartial treatment for all candidates. But, determining what is "fair and impartial treatment" can be quite complicated. Thus, even an activity such as this could be called into question.
Dluge counsels that it would be better if some other organization were to sponsor such an event if it is to be held at a firehouse. One example illustrates the potential problems:
In one ruling regarding a public forum, the IRS found that an organization was within the rule's limits when it gathered information from candidates and others (who were characterized as experts). It was acceptable to distribute the forum results to the public in the form of educational information. But, it was not acceptable when the organization publicized the opinions of those participating in the forum about which candidates they favored or opposed. Merely publicizing the positions of others implied favoritism toward a candidate.
This ruling illustrates the fine kinds of distinctions that make the tax law so complex. Such complexity makes this a risky area for volunteer fire departments to enter, especially when the potential cost is so great. There is good reason for Dluge's caution about fire department involvement in campaign activities, even something so seemingly innocent as hosting a candidate debate or public forum. Likewise, internal communications regarding candidates would be a violation of the regulations. Charitable organizations are not permitted to suggest to members how they should vote. Volunteer departments would be cautioned about providing candidate information to their members.
But, volunteer fire departments can't afford to ignore the political leadership of their communities. There needs to be creative thinking about how to maintain political support without running afoul of these strict tax regulations. The most important way to accomplish this is through the individual efforts of department members themselves. Volunteers, even more than career firefighters, may participate in campaign activities as individuals because there are no employment-related restrictions.
Departments also should make certain that their doors are open to visits from community and political leaders. Private tours and meetings also should be offered so that these leaders can learn about the services that the department provides to the community, as well as the department's needs. Politicians, literally from the President to the most local officeholder, recognize the importance of the fire department to the community and generally are more than willing to make such visits. Such visits should, however, be focused on the department and its activities. They should not be scheduled for the purpose of trying to influence the outcome of any legislative activity. Charitable organizations also are prohibited from making substantial efforts to influence legislation of any type.
Fire departments that have charitable tax status must be careful to avoid becoming involved in any kind of campaign or political activity. But, they cannot afford to be totally oblivious to their political environment. And, their members, like all other firefighters, should be aware of, and involved in, the local political scene.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.