Perhaps you’ve noticed firefighters in shopping center parking lots around Wichita collecting donations for the Salvation Army. That hasn’t been their usual collection spot on the first three Saturdays of each December.
For decades, Wichita firefighters have stood at busy intersections, their big black boots in hand, collecting donations for the Salvation Army in December and the Muscular Dystrophy Association each Labor Day weekend.
But concern for the firefighters’ safety led the Fire Department to stop the practice of collecting at intersections this December for the Salvation Army.
“Safety should be paramount,” Fire Chief Ron Blackwell said.
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An agreement with the Salvation Army was worked out and firefighters have been collecting from shopping center parking lots, though the move has cut donations in half.
Now the city is debating whether to ban all charitable fundraising at intersections.
Last week the City Council unanimously voted to defer a decision until Feb. 15, giving it time to set up a committee to study the issue.
On Tuesday, the council will vote on a temporary moratorium on intersection fundraising until a final decision is made.
The proposed ordinance is driven by safety issues brought on by wider and increasingly busier intersections. The number of nonprofits taking to the streets for soliciting has also doubled over the past two years, the Police Department said.
“I think we can find some common ground, allow some of this to continue in a safer way,” council member Jeff Longwell said. One possibility, he said, would be banning fundraising at double turn-lane intersections. City Manager Robert Layton said another option might be to allow fundraising at visible city facilities. Council member Sue Schlapp said she would also like to come up with something that can work for everybody. “But I don’t know what it is,” she said. “And which is more important? Money for the nonprofits or the security for the citizens? Safety has to be the No. 1 priority.”
The outcome of the proposed ordinance “will drive all the decisions about what we do with MDA and the Salvation Army,” Blackwell said.
Most communities that ban fundraising at intersections recommend nonprofits do it in parking lots, Deputy Police Chief Terri Moses said.
But fundraising in parking lots doesn’t bring the same return as working busy intersections.
For about 40 years, Wichita firefighters have collected on the streets for the Salvation Army, said Craig Plank, the organization’s development director.
He said the firefighters’ efforts for the three December Saturdays normally bring in $20,000 to $25,000. At the parking lots through the first two Saturdays this year, firefighter collections totaled about $9,000.
“So we’re down about 50 percent,” Plank said. “It’s the difference between 22 intersections around town on three consecutive Saturdays to about nine shopping centers. You don’t have the traffic, you don’t have the access to the public.”
At the same time, “It’s a safety issue, and we’re certainly sensitive to that. We’re still grateful for the relationship with the firefighters. It’s just not as productive.”
Nor would it be for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Angela Kessler, executive director of the Ark Valley MDA in Wichita, said the firefighters raised $50,000 from intersections on Labor Day weekend — about 10æpercent of the local chapter’s annual budget.
She said that amount would be cut 70 to 90æpercent if firefighters weren’t allowed to collect at intersections.
“Unfortunately, that’s not something we can make up in the long term,” Kessler said. “Public safety is important to us, but we think it can be done safely. We’ve always done it the right way and followed the rules.”
The firefighters’ union — International Association of Firefighters — has been part of the Muscular Dystrophy’s Labor Day weekend national campaign since 1954.
In Wichita, there has been 100æpercent participation in MDA’s campaign by fire stations and shifts the past two years, said Rocky Bumgarner, president of the local firefighters’ union.
If firefighters also have to try to fill their boots with donations for MDA from parking lots, Bumgarner said, “We would still get out and collect, but it would be disappointing. We’d be collecting 10 cents on the dollar from what we got on the streets.”
In 1995, Kansas amended a statewide ban on soliciting from streets and intersections by allowing fundraising if a permit was obtained from local authorities. In 2000, Wichita took the state up on that option and created a permit process for nonprofits.
But over the past decade traffic has increased and double turn lanes are now common at busy intersections.
In presenting the Police Department’s proposed ban, Moses said that the number of permits granted in 2010 has reached 28 — about double what it was two years ago.
Plus, of 38 organizations that have received a permit over the last decade, 15 have been from out of state, Moses said.
“Next to public safety, people most complain about (fundraisers) from out of state,” she said. “Not all the money is going to local organizations.”
One percent of the city’s 1,400 nonprofits solicit donations at intersections.
“Nonprofits are a vital part of our community and fundraising is an imperative part of a nonprofit,” Moses said, “but we feel like the primary issue is public safety.”
She said the city doesn’t have a way to track accidents or incidents as the result of street fundraising, but that complaints have increased over the years.
“Anecdotally, we’ve been told we’ve had a lot of near accidents,” Moses said.
The police department also doesn’t have a way of knowing how many are soliciting without a permit at the 42 intersections where fundraising is allowed.
Police generally issue a warning and tell such groups to leave an intersection, Moses said.
The Police Department checked with 11 other communities and found that seven — Johnson County; Overland Park; Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.; Columbia and Springfield, Mo.; and Tulsa — have a complete ban. Norman, Okla., allows fundraising from the sidewalk.
Three on the list allow intersection fundraising — Topeka, Colorado Springs and St. Joseph, Mo. — but Topeka is considering a ban, Moses said.
MDA’s Kessler countered that the Kansas towns of Junction City, El Dorado, Pittsburg, Garden City and Kansas City allow intersection fundraising, as do Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago.
Wichita’s current ordinance has nine rules. Besides requiring all fundraiser participants to be at least 18, a solicitor can’t approach a vehicle unless signaled to do so by the driver or the window is down.
“They’re virtually all unenforceable except for the 18-year-old one,” Moses said.
She said it would take less police manpower to enforce a complete ban.
“We just go there, tell them to leave and there’s no discussion,” she said. “(Otherwise), we have to educate them, give them another chance. If we get another complaint, we have to go back.”
For the firefighters, their involvement with the charitable fundraisers is on a completely different level — no matter the location.
“Our job means we often see people on the worst days of their lives, in tragic circumstances,” Bumgarner said. “This allows us to give back to the community and the public gets to see us in a different light.”