Foothills group gets responses and issues one

The Foothills Forum, the year-old nonprofit organization behind an in-depth opinion survey mailed to Rappahannock County citizens over the past few weeks, reported an encouraging response rate to its first-of-its-kind survey this week — and then found itself answering a few questions of its own.

The questions arose over the past week, as thousands of locals received the survey from the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research, which is a Foothills partner — as is this newspaper, having agreed to publish the results of the survey, and to collaborate with the Foothills Forum on related reporting, writing and public engagement projects.

On Rappnet, a group email list with a focus on Rappahannock County issues and events, the questions focused over the weekend on the Foothills Forum’s status as a tax-exempt organization, after one of its correspondents (lawyer David Konick) reported being unable to find records of the group’s existence in Virginia or federal records, and questioned the legality of its fundraising (which, at its first annual meeting in August, was reported as approaching $100,000).

In a response posted to the group’s website and to Rappnet on Tuesday (and published as a letter to the editor from Foothills chair Larry “Bud” Meyer), the group reported having legally agreed last fall to acquire an existing 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the Radii Foundation, and having followed IRS procedures as the existing directors resigned and Foothills’ directors and officers were elected. But, as Meyer said in his response, “We’re new and small. Once we took over, we dropped the ball on an IRS filing. We filed our 2014 Form 990 late, unaware the prior nonprofit hadn’t filed their annual tax forms the previous two years. We should have known.”

The IRS sent Foothills a letter in late August revoking its tax-exempt status, the result of the organization having been late three times in filing its Form 990.

Meyer said the group has filed its application to have its tax-exempt status reinstated, and though the IRS won’t say how long it will take, he and Michael Brown, the group’s attorney, say they expect the tax-exempt status will be reinstated. “Reinstatement is often automatic once the application has been filed and processed by the IRS,” Brown said in a memo to Foothills directors this week, “and often results in no actual lapse of tax-exempt status.

“I do not anticipate any action other than retroactive reinstatement for Foothills Forum based upon the IRS guidance,” Brown wrote. “In the interim, Foothills is permitted to continue operations as a nonprofit.” Brown and Meyer both noted that until reinstatement comes, the nonprofit will have to advise potential donors that their contributions may not be tax-deductible. Any donations made before the organization received notice of its revoked tax-exempt status in August, Brown said, will be tax-deductible as usual under IRS code.

“We have great confidence in our partners at the Foothills Forum and believe our shared mission to produce more in-depth reporting will contribute to the civic dialogue in our county,” said Dennis Brack, president of Rappahannock Media, publisher of the Rappahannock News.

Meanwhile, Meyer said Tuesday, responses to the survey — which attempts to identify the issues Rappahannock’s 7,000-plus citizens care most about, primarily to identify the subjects of future in-depth media reporting projects, public forums and other means of engagement.

“What we are hearing from U.Va. is that the response is hugely encouraging,” Meyer said. “And all of this is meant to accomplish one really big goal — which is to get us talking about the issues, and our future.”

Meyer encouraged all who get the survey to return it no matter what they feel — or, in fact, for that very reason. “The survey is meant to be a baseline of information — this is the time for our free, all-inclusive shot to say what we think about Rappahannock County.”