- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Special Report

The growing fund-raising practice of hitting up drivers for money while they sit at traffic lights is drawing the ire of local officials.
On many weekends and afternoons, charities and youth groups walk along major intersections with custom-made T-shirts, buckets and signs asking for contributions: Along University Boulevard in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, on New York Avenue, up and down Route 355 and Shady Grove Road, at the intersections of Routes 29 and 198 and Route 29 and Randolph Road. "We've heard loud and clear from people across the county who are tired of being hit up for money every time they pass through a certain intersection," said Montgomery police spokesman Officer Derek Baliles.
But problems abound. First, drivers are growing increasingly weary of children, teen-agers and adults who wander through traffic and approach their windows at seemingly every red light to ask for money. Safety for the solicitors and drivers is a concern. Not to mention scam artists. Montgomery County Council member Nancy Dacek, Darnestown Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would outlaw the practice.
The county would join Charles County, Md., with an outright ban of the charities that stand on median strips and often weave through traffic to approach drivers. Other local jurisdictions have a variety of laws handling them.
The bill stems from complaints by the county police, who say their concerns are two-fold: safety of the solicitors and the hassle to drivers.
"I'm seeing it increase across the metro D.C. area," Officer Baliles said. "Organizations have seen this as a way to make money fast."Those who would lose out under the bill, though, include firefighters, who have used this method of fund raising for years.

The only way?
Players from the Amateur Athletic Union's D.C. Hawks youth basketball team stood in the sweltering early July heat at the busy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast, asking passers-by for donations, buckets in hand.
The boys were trying to raise enough money for their trip to the AAU nationals in Florida in late July. Their leaders say it is the only way to raise money when many of the people who live in their neighborhoods are too poor to contribute.
Although many leaders of organizations that collect money on roadways are wary to talk about this fund-raising practice, a helper explained his team's reasoning.
"They have no money; they have nothing given to them," said one of the team's fund-raising helpers, Edward Campbell. "Why don't the guys that make money contribute to these teams?"
The District does not prohibit charities from soliciting at roadways. But police can stop them if they make sudden, dangerous movements into traffic, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police.So the boys spent their summer days asking those driving by to help them out with a few dollars toward their goal. And many obliged.
The Hawks managed to raise enough money to make it to Florida for the tournament.But Charles County Sheriff Frederick Davis, who fought to get legislation passed last year to outlaw this type of solicitation in his county, said the safety concerns are too grave to ignore.
"I realize that many times groups are making solicitations for entirely worthy purposes," he said. "However, the risk these fund-raising efforts represent to the safety of pedestrians and motorists overrides the worthiness of whatever cause they are raising funds to support."
So what is a poor team like the Hawks to do to compete nationally, Mr. Campbell asked?Last year, the boys made the trip down to Florida for the national championships, and their bus broke down six times, he said."A lot of times, we take kids in our cars," Mr. Campbell said.
In addition to the hardships of actually getting the team to national games, family members are often too poor to attend.
"We have no fans in the stands," he said. "Their parents have no way of getting there."How legitimate is it?
Consumer groups caution against street solicitation because they say it is an easy way for con artists to swindle drivers.
They caution against giving money to street-charity solicitors, saying that the average person often is taken advantage of.Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, said people should keep in mind certain things when asked for a donation on the street.
"One of the key issues with street solicitations is when you're giving cash, there's an issue of how much security is in place," he said. "Clearly, when someone is collecting cash donations on the street, you need to be careful because your money may not necessarily go where you believe."
Mr. Weiner suggested consumers ask questions before opening their wallets. A potential donor should ask for identification, a phone number and an address of the organization.
He said illegitimate solicitors often count on a person's willingness to hand over a few dollars, no questions asked. But there are too many questions to just pass over the concerns.
"One fact is that street solicitation has been around for a long time to raise money, and some organizations have abused this approach," he said.

'Fill the Boot'

Street fund raising has long been the staple of volunteer fire departments, who use it — often called "Fill the Boot" campaigns — to collect money to benefit charities and research organizations.
The Burtonsville firefighters solicit at the intersection of Routes 29 and 198, less than a half-mile from their stationhouse. Tami Bulla, the fire department's president, said their firetrucks are visible and they are dressed in their gear, so they are noticeable and safer.She said a law change in Montgomery County would force firefighters to find new ways to raise money.
"The impact is dramatic," she said. Last year, the department was able to raise $50,000 in two weekends to benefit the public safety officials who worked to clean up after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But, she said, the department understands the county's safety concerns.
"We kind of understand both sides of it," she said. But "we're not as likely to get ourselves killed."
Officer Baliles said the issue of firefighter collection is touchy.
"That's been an awkward issue," he said. "This law potentially could affect them and that traditional form of fund raising."
But firefighters would not be exempt from the code if passed.
"We couldn't just turn a blind eye to that," Officer Baliles said.
The Maryland State Firefighters Association, which represents volunteer fire departments, is not opposed to changing county codes to make the roads safer.
Leonard King, secretary of the organization, said Maryland volunteer fire departments already do what they can to keep safe when collecting money for "Fill the Boot" campaigns."First of all, we're interested in safety," he said, noting that there are alternatives, such as soliciting in parking lots of grocery stores.Mrs. Bulla said the department will abide by the county's decision.
"It takes away that opportunity, but we can find other ones, possibly," she said.

Drivers distracted

The Montgomery County Police Department receives phone calls every day from drivers complaining about charitable solicitors. Heavy traffic, solicitors weaving through lanes of cars, and distracted drivers can make a "potentially dangerous combination," Officer Baliles said.
One driver, Burtonsville resident Michele Nebel Peake, sent a letter to each of the nine Montgomery County Council members asking them to change the lax regulations on roadway solicitation.
"It's gotten out of control," Mrs. Nebel Peake said.
In addition to being concerned about the safety of motorists and the solicitors, she said she was fed up with being asked for money every time she drove through the intersection of Routes 29 and 198.
"There's no identification," she said. "I personally like to know who I'm giving my money to."
Mrs. Nebel Peake said she is not the only driver frustrated with this situation, which she said has been getting worse over the last several years.
"Pretty much everyone I've talked to feels the same way," she said.
Police say it is difficult to determine if anyone has been injured while soliciting on roadways in the past several years.
But "Montgomery County police aren't aware of anyone being injured in the course of soliciting funds on highway median strips," said spokeswoman Lucille Bauer.
Although the Maryland secretary of state's Charitable Organizations Division keeps an eye on charities, the office does not require street solicitors to register. The counties decide how to handle them.
Montgomery County does not require charities to obtain permits but does have rules on where people can stand. If the solicitor steps off the median strip and it is reported, police can respond and take action against the solicitor.
Mrs. Dacek's legislation would outlaw any solicitation from a median strip, forbids fund-raisers from stepping onto the road, and bans them from approaching cars. The offense would carry a first-offense fine of $50 and a second-offense fine of $75.
She said she has the support of the council and expects her legislation to pass. However, County Executive Douglas Duncan said he has not taken a position on the issue. He vetoed similar legislation in 1995 because he did not see a problem and thought existing laws could handle the situation."Most people are very upset by this practice," Mrs. Dacek said.
Virginia — where the practice isn't as widespread — requires charitable organizations to register with the state. However, they do not need to obtain permits or licenses like vendors must.
The proposed Montgomery County change is modeled after legislation that passed in Charles County in 2001. Police, lawmakers and residents in the county were frustrated with the number of solicitors, especially evident along U.S. 301 and Routes 5 and 228, said Officer Nicole Kelley of the Charles County Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's office and the county commissioners tried for two years to pass the ban, but were not successful until last year."We consider this matter a vital public safety issue due to the increasing number of complaints we receive about this practice and the increasing amount of traffic on county roadways," Sheriff Davis said. The police have no record of any such incidents.
Mr. Weiner said donation-seekers should always respect safety, especially when children are involved. Adults should supervise children, he said.
But Officer Baliles said adults who allow children to solicit on the street are being negligent.
"What type of responsibility do they bear for knowingly putting these children into dangerous situations?" he asked. "The potential for injury is certainly there."Local response
If Mrs. Dacek's bill passes, Montgomery County would join other jurisdictions that have been taking a hard look at their rules on charitable solicitation in traffic.
Although most states, including Maryland and Virginia, require charitable organizations to register with the state, they do not regulate where the organizations can collect money.Fairfax and Arlington counties do not require that solicitors obtain permits and do not prohibit street solicitation. Alexandria also does not prohibit people from soliciting from drivers. However, most charitable organizations in Virginia are required to register with the state before collecting donations.
The District prohibits solicitors from making sudden movements into traffic from a safe point such as a sidewalk or median strip, Sgt. Gentile said.
"It would be dependent on what the officer observes at the time as to what, if any, action would be taken by the officer," he said.Prince George's County law prohibits solicitation along county roads, said County Attorney Leonard Lucchi.
State delegates from Prince George's County were concerned about solicitation along state roads as well, so legislation was passed in the Maryland General Assembly that will prohibit minors from vending or soliciting along state roads in the county as of Oct. 1, Mr. Lucchi said.
But charity groups aren't happy about proposals to outlaw what they are doing."We need people to help, not pull us down," Mr. Campbell said.

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