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Seabird Sanctuary back from the brink
Organization has a plan to come back from current financial crisis
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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Director Ralph Heath said the nonprofit bird rescue and rehabilitation facility has taken steps to reduce operating costs and maximize efficiencies.
INDIAN SHORES – A series of financial setbacks at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary can be overcome, says Director Ralph Heath.

In an interview with the Beacon Oct. 18, Heath outlined a comeback plan that he said would dramatically reduce costs and put the bird rescue and rehabilitation facility on a path to financial stability.

The challenges Heath and his associates face are formidable. A drop in income from donations in recent months has caused the Seabird Sanctuary to miss payroll payments for its paid employees. The Internal Revenue Service recently filed liens amounting to $187,000 against the sanctuary for nonpayment of payroll taxes. Compounding the problem is an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The nonprofit Seabird Sanctuary depends on donations for 100 percent of its operating income. Heath attributes most of the decrease in income to the state of the economy. The number of people donating to the charity has not declined, but the average amount donated is less, said Pam Dobyns, the sanctuary’s PR director and spokeswoman.

The decreased income has left the Seabird Sanctuary unable to meet all its financial obligations, and the paid employees have felt the brunt of the cutbacks.

Dobyns said the sanctuary’s priorities put the birds and their care first. The needs of the birds never stop, she said. Feeding and caring for the birds already there and responding to the daily inflow of sick and injured birds is an ongoing obligation.

With personnel costs being the largest budget item, the Sanctuary was faced with the reality that it could not cover its payroll. Heath said the Sanctuary is working with the employees to get them caught up with their pay. They are also engaged with the IRS on a plan to pay off the lien at a reduced rate.

Heath said he himself has not had a paycheck in months.

Some of the employees are continuing to work for free, Dobyns said. Others have agreed to defer their paychecks. Some have left, and have expressed dissatisfaction with the sanctuary management. The organization’s part-time volunteers are helping out to a greater degree than ever.

Heath stressed that the Sanctuary has taken steps to reduce operating costs and maximize efficiencies. But some costs have dramatically increased. The price of bait fish, a big part of the voracious birds’ diet, has doubled, he said. While some have disputed that claim, local charter boat captain Travis Palladeno confirmed the price hike.

“That’s very true,” said Palladeno. He said sardines in particular are in short supply and the cost is up. Effects from Tropical Storm Debby and from the BP oil spill in the Gulf have contributed to the problem, Palladeno said.

A plan for recovery

The comeback plan for the Sanctuary will play a critical role in assuring its future viability, Heath said.

The key element is to move the facility from an employee-based to volunteer-based operation. It involves replacing paid employees with volunteers in non-critical positions. That won’t be accomplished overnight, Heath said. But it is the goal, and the only way to significantly reduce the payroll costs, which make up the bulk of the sanctuary’s expense, he said.

“We have a high payroll, and we have to deal with this,” Heath said.

Training of the volunteer base will be critical, said Dobyns. The volunteers will need to be motivated and know how to do their jobs, most of which involve caring for the avian inhabitants.

“They will have to know how to care for the birds,” whose needs are often hands-on and can be complex, Dobyns said.

The second part of the recovery plan involves selling assets and equipment not needed, and not related to the Sanctuary’s mission.

Finally, Heath said, “We must continue to trim expenses wherever we can.”

The Seabird Sanctuary is also stepping up its fundraising efforts to increase donations. Upcoming is a “Hallo-Wing” party, and a joint promotion with the McDonald’s in Madeira Beach where donors receive a card good for meal discounts.

A “Feed the Birds” campaign is also being launched with a goal of raising $100,000, the cost of feeding the birds for one year.

The comeback plan, when fully implemented, will bring significant, badly needed changes to the organization, Dobyns said, but “we have to change the way we operate.”

There is one area of the Sanctuary’s operation that will not change, Heath stressed.

“In dealing with our problems, all of the birds are, and will continue to be, well cared for and well fed,” he said, inviting anyone to “come out and see for themselves.”

Heath said he is confident the comeback plan for the Sanctuary will succeed.

“We have been here since 1972, and we plan to be here at least through 2072,” he said.

Help is needed

Heath said anyone wanting to know more about the Sanctuary’s needs can go to
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