Dog Bark officially a charity

WESTFIELD – The Westfield Dog Bark Friends have been working to establish a playground for dogs in the city for almost two years and have recently officially become a tax-exempt charitable organization.
Volunteers led by the group’s treasurer, Mariah Strattner, have been working to achieve 501(c) (3) status, which makes a group a non-profit charitable organization in the eyes of the IRS , almost since the advocacy group was founded and achieved success in mid June when a letter was received from an IRS official which stated “we have determined that you are exempt from Federal income tax under section 501 (c) (3).”
“The letter of our approval from the IRS was one of the most welcome sights of our summer season” Strattner said.
She said that the quest for tax exempt status has been arduous but is worth the effort because it confers dual benefits to the organization.
Because of the approval, the Friends group is exempt from federal corporate taxes on its revenues.
And contributors also benefit because, with 501(c) (3) status, donations become bone fide charitable contributions under the IRS rules and donors may deduct their contributions to the dog park effort when they itemize deductions on their federal and state tax returns.
Strattner said “From the time we submitted the application it was only about three months before we heard from the IRS” but explained that the completing the application was a challenge.
She said that when she started to investigate the process she found that first the group had to be incorporated.
The process of writing the articles of incorporation and submitting them to the Secretary of State took about five months, Strattner said, and after IRS officials received the articles they had to be adjusted.
“It’s got to be language that both the state and the IRS approve” she said. “They (the IRS) gave us the language verbatim.”
Leaders of the Friends hope that the new status of the group will open the doors to substantial corporate and personal contributions for the dog park now that those donations are fully tax deductible.
Ed Phillips, the president of the Westfield Dog Bark Friends, said that volunteers will now start to approach local business leaders in search of donations.
Phillips said “In order to make the park the way we want it we need 10 to 12 thousand dollars” to pay for fencing, gates, mulch, signage and waste containers and said that he is confident that substantial contribution will be received.
The group has staged fundraisers since its inception which have ranged from simple informational displays with donations canisters, through more elaborate efforts such as a pet portrait event to high visibility events like the recent “Strut With Your Mutt” which saw supporters walking with their dogs through the downtown section of the city.
“Our fundraisers over the past two years have been very successful due to the faith and enthusiasm of the people who really want to see this happen” Strattner said. “They have put their trust in us to obtain what we needed to ultimately do a great job and we don’t intend to let them down. This (501 (c) (3) status) is the most important step in the beginning of that process” she added.
The fundraisers will continue with the next planned appeal, a “Cones and Bones” event, to be staged in August.
The first such event, at which dog owners were asked to take their dogs to Zuber’s on Southwick Road to enjoy a dog bone while the owners enjoy an ice cream cone, netted more than $200 for the dog park.
The Friends have looked at several possible sites for a dog park and, while several have been eliminated, others are still under consideration.
The Friends found early support from the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission led by chairman Kenneth Magarian and several sites controlled by the commission have been considered.
An early suggestion to use part of Chauncey Allen Park was not found to be viable as that park is leased by the Friends of Grandmothers Garden who have other plans for the park.
A former director of the Parks and Recreation Department, Ann Marie Heiser, had spoken of using part of the property at Whitney Playground and that idea was reconsidered but the problem of access to the park in winter sent that proposal to the back burner because snow at the park is not plowed.
Also considered as a site of the dog park was the currently unused Arms Brook Park on Lockhouse Road but the Friends found that infrastructure expenses for access and a parking area appeared to be prohibitive.
As an alternative, Parks and Recreations commissioners offered to allow the Friends to use part of Paper Mill Playground for a dog park but that location encountered considerable opposition from neighbors and Little League officials at a public meeting to consider that option.
However, the public meeting brought the issue to the forefront and to the attention of city councilors.
The Council created an ad hoc committee, chaired by City Councilor Christopher Crean and staffed by Councilors James Adams and Brian Sullivan, as well as Edward Phillips and Marilyn Sandidge, the president and vice-president, respectively, of the Friends.
Crean reported that he had started a survey of city owned property which might be available and found that property on Neck Road, near the city’s water treatment plant was available and might be usable.
However, that property, while suitable in some respects, was found to be prone to flooding and concerns were raised that the isolated location would be a concern to women who wanted to take their dogs to the park alone.
Crean also said that Mayor Daniel M. Knapik has told him that the city is in the process of acquiring additional recreational property which would be well suited for use of a dog park but said that acquisition is pending and has declined to release the location of the site.
Crean said that he will continue to research city land which may be available and will check with the city’s legal department about using city property for a dog park before he schedules another meeting of the ad hoc committee.

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