Charity begins at home; Salvation Army's suburban abodes draw fire.
Salvation Army Majs. Michael J. and Carol Ann Copeland, who run the charity's thrift store and adult rehabilitation center in Worcester, this summer moved into an upscale, two-story colonial home on a quiet street in Holden.
The handsome and spacious suburban house, built in 1996, boasts four bedrooms, 2-1/2 bathrooms and amenities such as hardwood floors, crown molding and wainscoting in the dining room.
And the Salvation Army pays for it all - even the furniture and utility bills.
Amid the worst recession in decades, and at a time when the charity was struggling to cope with rising need and expenses that outstripped donations, the Salvation Army of Massachusetts Inc. sold an older, modest raised ranch in Paxton for $215,000 and upgraded to the larger and newer Holden colonial at a cost of $350,000.
The charity also owns two homes in Auburn, including one that cost $349,900 in 2004, to house its other local officers: Majs. Thomas and Bessie Babbitt and Capts. Juan and Glenys Urbaez.
Over the past decade, the Salvation Army of Massachusetts has paid at least $4 million for homes in some of the state's most desirable communities for its top officers, according to a review conducted by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Telegram & Gazette. Those purchases include an $800,000 colonial in Needham, the home of state commander Maj. William Bode, and a nearly $500,000 house in Bridgewater.
Salvation Army officials stress that officers are paid only modest salaries and that the residential real estate purchases are made with money from unrestricted gifts and bequests donated to the charity, not from the coins and small bills dropped into the Salvation Army's iconic red kettles during the holidays.
But some local donors and national advocates for charitable transparency and accountability question the propriety of sinking millions of dollars in donations, whatever the source, into pricey suburban homes for managers.
"They could plow that money into homeless shelters, into food banks, into facilities that really serve the poor," said Pablo S. Eisenberg, visiting fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.
"What troubles me the most about this is that, in times of great need by poor people, you have expenditures on properties and on housing that could be more moderate," Mr. Eisenberg said.
But Worcester lawyer Michael P. Angelini, a member of the Salvation Army's state board of advisers, noted that compensation, including housing, for officer couples such as the Copelands runs about $70,000 to $75,000 a year.
"You compare that to other charities, and it's way, way lower. The Salvation Army takes care of their housing and pays them modestly. That's their model," Mr. Angelini said. "The culture is they provide nice housing for these people."
Mr. Copeland defends the specific purchase of the Holden home, which he found and recommended to the Salvation Army office in New York that greenlighted the transaction, saying the $350,000 colonial was the only suitable house he could find in a good school district after more than a year of looking. The major said that city schools are not acceptable for the children of Salvation Army officers.
He said the Salvation Army's Paxton house where he and his wife lived for nearly five years needed many costly repairs to fix a leaky basement and other problems, and wasn't worth keeping. Although his three children are grown, Mr. Copeland said the replacement house had to have four bedrooms and be located in a top school district, in case any future Salvation Army officer to hold his position and live in the house has children.
Salvation Army officers are transferred about every three years on average, but the Copelands have been assigned to Worcester for more than five years, and the couple they replaced had served here for 16 years.
The $350,000 price tag on the Holden home was $110,000 more than the median home price in the town at the time of the purchase, according to the real estate data tracking firm The Warren Group.
Mr. Copeland acknowledged that the Salvation Army initially had hoped to spend much less on a new house for him and his wife.
"They said, `OK, let's try this range.' And we'd look and look, but they didn't meet some of the criteria," Mr. Copeland said of the houses he viewed. He added that he would then have to go back to his bosses in New York and ask that the price range be increased. "We did that repeatedly," he explained.
The end result was that the Copelands, whose three children are grown and living on their own, ended up moving into a 3,828-square-foot home, including a two-car garage and unfinished basement.
The purchase appears to violate the Salvation Army's own rules for the size of homes it buys. Col. James Reynolds, the secretary for business and administration in the charity's Eastern Territory, said residential purchases are limited to 3,000 square feet, including garages and basements.
Maj. Bode, the district commander for the Salvation Army in Massachusetts, lives in a Needham home built in 2005 and now assessed at $899,000, real estate records show.
The Salvation Army bought the four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre in 2007, shortly after he was appointed to the charity's top position in the state. Two other homes owned by the Salvation Army were sold to pay for the Needham house, Mr. Bode said.
"I think it's an investment that allows us to provide for Salvation Army families who are doing service. We're not throwing money away," he said.
Mr. Copeland, an ordained minister, which is the case with all Salvation Army officers, runs the 115-bed adult rehabilitation center on Cambridge Street in Worcester. The center's $5 million annual budget is funded by sales from the attached thrift store.
"You work with people who are very troubled for many hours a week. You need a place where you can kind of get away from things, recoup. So when you come back you're renewed and refreshed," Mr. Copeland said. "Because of some of the people we deal with, often we're not sure of their backgrounds. We certainly don't want to be so accessible that somebody shows up on our front door in the middle of the night."
William T. Breault, chairman of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, has worked with the Salvation Army officials on projects over the years. In recent years, he has criticized the group for not adequately policing the behavior of some of its clients, such as public drinking, drug use and fighting.
Mr. Breault said he respects the Salvation Army and doesn't begrudge its officers their suburban respite.
"But we are here, and we live here and stay here in the community," he said. "We don't have the luxury, at least the majority of us don't, to go to Paxton or Holden to get the kind of rest we need and deserve."
Crystal Gighittiant, a certified nursing assistant from Worcester interviewed after she dropped a few coins in the plastic Salvation Army kettle outside a city supermarket a few days before Christmas, said she would have kept her money had she known that top Salvation Army officials are put up in upscale homes far from the shelters and soup kitchens they run in urban neighborhoods.
Ms. Gighittiant and other donors were shown photos of the upscale Holden home where the Copelands live.
"That's disgusting. He looks like he's getting more than he needs," Ms. Gighittiant said. "There's too many homeless people out there for them to be living so large."
Another kettle donor, Sally Gabriella of Shrewsbury, said she was comfortable giving to the Salvation Army because the homes for officers were paid for from a separate capital fund.
"I'm happy with how my dollars are being used," she said.
The Salvation Army reports that 83 cents of every dollar dropped into a kettle or donated during the holiday fundraiser goes to direct services, with the rest paying for administration and other expenses. That's considered a good ratio by charity watchdog groups, which advise people to think twice about donating to any charity that spends less than 75 cents per $1 in donations on services.
But not all of the Salvation Army of Massachusetts' fundraisers are so efficient. In 2009, for example, the charity hired the Arizona-based telemarketing firm MDS Communications Corp. to solicit contributions over the phone. The firm raised $10,536 in the Salvation Army's name, but kept all but $618 as its fee, according to a state Attorney General's office report.
In that case, less than 6 cents of every dollar raised went to direct services, such as running a food pantry and meal service at the charity's Main Street center.
In 2008, MDS raised $383,224 in donations for the Salvation Army of Massachusetts and kept $161,411 of the money as its fee, according to a report from the Attorney General's office. That works out to less than 60 cents per $1 raised going to direct services, well below the 75-cent benchmark advocated by most charity watchdog groups.
As for the charity's inventory of upscale homes in the suburbs, nonprofit and charity observers warn that a public perception of Salvation Army officers ensconced in fancy homes way beyond the means of most of the people who donate could undermine the organization's fundraising efforts.
"Money that goes for homes, is money that could go for low-income or needy people," said Georgetown University's Mr. Eisenberg.
Mr. Eisenberg and Gary R. Snyder, who publishes a newsletter called "Nonprofit Imperative," which tracks waste and mismanagement among nonprofits, said the distinction the Salvation Army is drawing between bequests that go into the capital fund and other donations that go into operational expenses is largely an artificial one.
"Why, if you get all these donations, isn't it going to the people who need it?" Mr. Snyder said. "Why is it going to a house?"
Contributing to this report were Joe Bergantino, Maggie Mulvihill and interns Sydney Lupkin, Sarah Favot and Jamie Lutz of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, and Andrea LePain of New England Cable News Network. Contact Thomas Caywood at email@example.com; contact Shaun Sutner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ART: PHOTOS; MAP; CHART
CUTLINE: (1) Salvation Army bell ringer Jose A. Gonzalez of Worcester thanks a donor for a contribution outside the Price Chopper supermarket on Sunderland Road in December. (2) Michael J. Copeland, Salvation Army Major (MAP) Salvation Army real estate deals (CHART) Salvation Army of Mass. Inc. 2008 annual report
PHOTOH: (1) T&G Photo/PAUL KAYTEYN
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Jan 3, 2010|
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