By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — A nonprofit that works to show appreciation and support for veterans year-round is facing a financial shortfall that threatens to reduce the scope of its beautification efforts at the North Main and Auburn streets roundabout.
Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle is grappling with a setback on two fronts: First, its donations have lagged and it still owes money to its flower vendors. Then, it got an unexpectedly high tax bill this year after its nonprofit sales tax exemption was denied by the state Department of Revenue.
Now they need to raise thousands of dollars and win an appeal on their sales tax exemption with the state in order to get the nonprofit out of the red. As is, the group expects to greatly scale back its work.
“The work they do speaks for itself. For a private landscaping effort it’s really top notch,” said Mark Bonne, chief of staff for state Sen. Steve Stadelman and a Rockford alderman. “I don’t know how you drive through the roundabout and not be impressed.”
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Bonne, working on behalf of Stadelman, has tried to help the nonprofit navigate the denial of its exemption and work on an appeal. The Friends group faces a roughly $1,800 sales tax liability largely because of two major donations this year: a new trailer and more than 30 evergreen trees.
The Friends group has spent the past four years sprucing up the roundabout with flowers and other landscaping. It views its efforts both as a show of support for veterans and a way to combat alarming suicide rates among post-9/11 veterans. A June 2021 Brown University study estimates nearly 30,200 veterans of wars after 9/11 died by suicide. This year, the nonprofit added a flower bed displaying the 988 suicide prevention number to serve as a conversation starter and a reminder for those in need.
“It has come to my attention that one of the most productive, efficient, effective, supportive and pride-inspiring endeavors in Rockford in recent memory is being unfairly burdened,” Patrick W. Liddell wrote in a letter of support to the Department of Revenue.
The organization also had letters of support from several state lawmakers.
“To use plain language, the project is a godsend, the likes of which are almost unheard of in our modern society,” Liddell wrote.
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The state denied the tax exemption in an Aug. 23 letter, saying the nonprofit didn’t meet the criteria because it wasn’t a direct-service charity.
The Friends is an all-volunteer group that raises money for its efforts entirely from donations. No tax money has been spent on the project.
“We save tax dollars. We use no tax dollars, but we are not getting the sales tax exemption,” said Helen Karakoudas Redfern, co-chair of Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle.
The nonprofit’s costs are up about 30% so far this year with inflation, but its donations have been behind by roughly 40%, said Ernie Redfern, co-chair of the group.
“Which brings us to a point we’ve never seen: negative numbers,” Helen Redfern said.
They owe about $1,800 to their flower vendors, who they said have patiently waited for payment.
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Usually at this point in the year the nonprofit is building up cash reserves as it prepares to make its flower orders for the spring. But with its checkbook in the red, it won’t be ordering the flowers it needs to decorate the main roundabout circle as it does each year. Instead it plans a scaled back approach to decorate the walls and medians.
The beautification effort costs roughly $15,000 per year, including $6,000 to $7,000 for the flowers.
“It’s not just the flowers. We have liability insurance. We have maintenance. We put fertilizer on that all year round, weed control. A lot of expenses go into this.” Ernie Redfern said. “No public money has ever been spent on this.”
Another setback this year was a bindweed invasion that hampered the circle’s beauty during summer months.
“Usually it is picture perfect by the Fourth of July,” Helen Redfern said.
But that wasn’t the case this year because of the weeds, and she said that likely played a role in decreased donations. Volunteers spent numerous hours this year weeding the circle and then replanting it to restore its beauty.
“We eventually got it right, but it was too late in the season and it didn’t hit the right notes for anyone who was opening their checkbook,” Helen Redfern said. “We’ve worked the hardest this year and we’re the farthest behind in our checking account.”
How to help | Donate to Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle
You can make a donation at rockfordveteranscircle.org/donate or by writing a check to Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle and mailing it to Carolyn Cadigan, treasurer, Friends of Veterans Memorial Circle, 1940 Harlem Blvd., Rockford, 61103.