Monday, September 13, 2010
Help Me Howard: Volunteer Fined
He volunteered to help his city to make the government run better. And his reward? Not a thank-you note: a fine for $1500. But can a government agency fine someone who is volunteering their time? Here is the answer from Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- Volunteers, like the people who help clean up the beach or the people who give their time to feed the homeless. There are many people who spend their Saturdays building houses and others who volunteer their time to make sure children get presents for Christmas.
So many ways to volunteer. When Stephen Mitchell moved to Miramar, he volunteered at his children's school.
Stephen Mitchell: "Just found that we loved the city, and that's when I started volunteering."
Next, he volunteered to be on Miramar's Planning and Zoning Board.
Stephen Mitchell: "I feet like it's a good way to give back to the community, and I was trying to set a good example for my kids as well."
As a member of the planning and zoning board, Stephen had to fill out a financial disclosure form, so when his family moved into their home, he let the city know to send the form to his new address.
Stephen Mitchell: "They sent the notification to my old address, and apparently for some reason, it didn't get forwarded, even though we had our mail forwarded."
By the time Stephen filled out the form, it was a month and a half past the deadline.
Stephen Mitchell: "No big deal, month and a half late. Turns out it was a big deal. I get a letter from the ethics commission, 'Because you turned in your form late, we are going to fine you $1500.'"
A volunteer for the city fined $1500. So Stephen appealed the ethics commission decision.
Stephen Mitchell: "I get back a letter, saying, 'No, you turned in your appeal four days late, so we are not even going to look at your appeal and your reason for why you filed late. You owe us the $1500.'"
Needless to say, Stephen had no idea helping the city for free could be so costly.
Stephen Mitchell: "Volunteered my time for two years for free, and now I am being charged $1500 because I didn't turn a form in on time."
And it gets worse. Stephen got a letter from the state telling him if he didn't pay the fine, they were turning him over to their collection agency and slapping a 23 percent fee on top of the $1500.
Stephen Mitchell: "Now, not only am I being charged $1500, now my credit can be damaged as well, all because I volunteered my time for the city that I adopted as my home and had come to love? It's crazy. I don't understand it."
He doesn't understand it, he doesn't like it and Howard, it leads us to you to find out if the government can fine you after you volunteer to help the government.
Howard Finkelstein: "Legally, they can come after Stephen because he missed the deadline, but it certainly seems wrong to come after a volunteer who gave up his time to help his community and in turn, the state of Florida punishes him for his good deeds."
I spoke to several officials in Miramar. They didn't know why the form had been sent to Stephen's old address, but they said Stephen had been reminded verbally to turn in the financial disclosure form several times. One official added, even volunteers have a certain amount of responsibility. He then added, we are not the ones fining him. It's the state.
A state official told me, we don't get any pleasure in fining people. If he had filed the appeal on time, the fine would have been waived, that 99 percent of the people get their paperwork in. And Howard says, as unfair as this might be for Stephen, this law is very important.
Howard Finkelstein: "The law was passed so that taxpayers would know if the people they elected were benefitting from their vote, for example, awarding contracts to a company that they owned stock in or even owned the company. That's why we need full disclosure. Unfortunately, the law can also victimize good people."
Stephen will have to find a way to pay the money, but...
Stephen Mitchell: "This is really having a chilling effect to me on my desire to volunteer. I hope it doesn't have the same effect on others."
Patrick Fraser: "What's that old line? No good deed goes unpunished. Anyway, will the state really turn this $1500 fine over to a collection agency? The government is looking for money, so you can bet they will. But they did offer Stephen a small break: he can set up a payment plan."
Your valuable time been stolen from you? Need someone to donate a little legal assistance? Contact us. For years, we have been volunteering to help, and so far, no fines.