Volunteer Fire Departments And Political Activities

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...


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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.

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