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State gives Amistad time, and money, to repair nonprofit status

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published 05/16/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/16/2013 03:08 PM
Funding threatened because group has not filed tax return for three consecutive years

Amistad America, owner of the famed replica of the 19th-century schooner that brought captive Africans to Connecticut, will continue to receive about $360,000 a year from the state as long as it re-establishes its tax-exempt status, legislators said this week.

Because it has not filed income tax returns for three consecutive years, Amistad America lost its tax-exempt status on Aug. 15. The IRS website posted the revocation on March 11. But the chairwoman of the legislature's Appropriations Committee and an official at the state Department of Economic and Community Development are in no hurry to penalize the organization right now.

"It (funding) will be there for the rest of this year and for next year to give them time to work it out," state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said. "My staff person talked to their chairman and they think they can get this worked out right away, and if that is the case, they will get the money. But if not, we will have to figure out what to do from there."

Amistad is budgeted to receive $359,776 in fiscal year 2014 and another $359,776 in fiscal year 2015.

Amistad America initially was created to address racism and intolerance by telling the story of the 53 Africans who were being forced into slavery in 1839. While traveling along the coast of Cuba in the cargo schooner Amistad, the Africans took control of the ship.

After being captured in Long Island Sound, they were brought to land in New London and jailed in New Haven without having been sold into slavery. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled they were free and could return to their homeland.

The DECD had withheld the remaining $75,000 payment for fiscal year 2013 after a column in The Day revealed the organization's status. But Christopher Bergstrom, deputy commissioner, said after meeting with Greg Belanger, the CEO for Amistad America, the department decided it would release the funds.

"We will condition it," Bergstrom said, referring to this year's last payment. "They have to use a portion of the payment to do the work to get the 501(c)(3) status."

Bergstrom said he was told at the meeting that Amistad America had filed the tax return on time but that it somehow was recorded as a day late; that Amistad didn't receive the notice that its status had been revoked because it had moved its offices; and that the IRS would be processing an expedited reinstatement.

For an organization to receive expedited reinstatement, there must be a "compelling" reason, according to the IRS website. Compelling reasons include a "pending grant, where failure to secure the grant will have an adverse impact on the organization's ability to continue operating," and "IRS errors have caused undue delays in issuing a determination letter."

The last tax return Amistad America filed was for the 2008 calendar year. But the organization did not file until Feb. 15, 2012, which was after the extended tax return deadline. An organization may file a tax return four and a half months after the last day of its fiscal year and apply for up to six months of extensions, according to GuideStar, an organization that tracks nonprofits' tax returns. For Amistad, that deadline, plus extensions, would have been Feb. 15, 2010.

Amistad has not rectified the situation since the revocation of its status last August, so the exemption remains revoked, according to the IRS website.

Belanger said he mistook the tax return deadline as being a year later and was focused on the ship's need for repairs and a Coast Guard certificate of inspection. He also blamed the failure to file returns on stress caused by a state-spending freeze during the ship's 2010 voyage to Cuba.

On the tax return for April 1, 2008, to March 1, 2009, Belanger said his salary was $122,860. He said he will collect about $40,000 to $50,000 this year and is owed about $150,000 that he does not ever expect to receive. He said his salary went toward repairs and that the organization was living month to month.

"It might have been easier to give up, but the importance of the mission and ship was too important," Belanger said.

He has arranged to charter the ship to the Maine-based organization Ocean Classroom, which sends teachers and students to sea to learn about maritime life. Belanger has become that organization's executive director and expects to earn about $70,000 a year, he said.

He remains CEO of Amistad America but is in the process of replacing himself, he said.

Bergstrom said the DECD is reviewing the contract between Amistad and Ocean Classroom.

"A lot of positives seem to be on the horizon," Bergstrom said.

He said Amistad America doesn't need to have tax-exempt status for the state to contribute to it, but DECD wants Amistad America to rectify the situation so that those who make donations may get the benefit of tax deductions.

The contract with Ocean Classroom will bring resources such as crew, maintenance and revenue, Bergstrom said.

He said the ship will dock in New Haven and New London during the summer months and head to the Caribbean in the winter months, as it has done in the past.

State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, and Appropriations Committee co-chairman, said, "I don't think we want to penalize something that is as historic as the Amistad. I think one of the things that it sort of screams is obviously that he needs more staff, he needs more people to help, because all of us are not always well-versed in the things of management."

She said maybe restrictions would be written into the state appropriation, such as requiring the organization to have someone accountable for fiscal responsibility.

Members of the local delegation sounded less positive.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who originally supported the organization, said he wouldn't be advocating one way or the other but would "wait to see if they came forward with a viable plan."

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said the organization's status needs to be straightened out before it gets more funding.

"Clearly, we need some feedback," she said. "I don't see us moving forward" without it, she said.

j.somers@theday.com

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