WADSWORTH: When John Grom decided to do something about incivility in society, he got a lesson about government bureaucracy and unintended consequences.
It left him biting his tongue after frustrating delays trying to obtain tax-exempt status for his fledgling organization.
Grom, a retired executive head hunter, is executive director of Right and Left Inc., a Wadsworth organization that seeks to promote civil discussion of political issues. Every month, he and three or four other people sit down at the city’s public-access television studio and respectfully discuss — and disagree on — current events.
On Thursday, they talked about presidential executive orders. Participants were Bryan Laubaugh, a financial consultant and member of the Medina County Republican Executive Committee; Patty Haskins, a Wadsworth City Council member and former teacher; Jerry Ritzman, vice president and partner of Ritzman Natural Health Pharmacies; and Ronald Chamberlin, a retired chemist.
Grom has big dreams for the project and figured it would be easy to convince the Internal Revenue Service that it merited tax-exempt status, a key step in attracting grants.
He was wrong.
Grom sent an application and $850 to the IRS in October. He received notice that the application was in process Oct. 29 and figured it was just a matter of time.
He’s still waiting, however, and now figures it could be months, or even years, before he hears an answer.
An IRS website indicates the agency only now is processing applications received in March 2012.
The television show is produced for free, but Grom dreams for much more.
It started when he and his wife were talking about what he would do in retirement.
“At the age of 73, I was wondering what I would do with the rest of my life, and she said, ‘Well, what’s your passion?’ ” he said. “My passion is to try to get people to speak sensibly to each other about politics.”
He decided to pattern the group’s organization after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That means local-access TV shows across the nation, a speakers bureau, local advertising, a presence at community activities and Internet advertising.
He especially wants to upgrade the primitive website he set up at www.rightandleft.org.
“I want to generate a million dollars a year; that’s my vision,” Grom said.
He knew it is impossible for foundations to donate money if a group doesn’t have tax-exempt status, so he turned to the IRS. What he didn’t know was that a recent law had sent the tax agency into turmoil.
The problem started in 2006, when Congress passed a law requiring tax-exempt organizations to file revenue statements.
An IRS newsletter says “any organization — large or small — that failed to file a required return or notice for three consecutive years would lose its federal tax-exemption.” So far, 450,000 organizations have lost their status. Many of them immediately reapplied, creating the backlog.
IRS, which usually handles about 60,000 tax-exempt applications a year, was overwhelmed.
Only 30,000 of the previously rejected organizations have successfully reapplied.
“I expect government to be slow, but this is over the top,” Grom wrote in an email to the Beacon Journal. “We are at a standstill until we can raise funds.”
Reaction from IRS
Getting explanations from the IRS was slow, and answers were contradictory. Calling Ohio’s U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, produced some information but no help speeding the paperwork along.
Calls and emails from the Beacon Journal to the IRS only produced links to standard Web publications. The agency declined to answer questions and is prohibited by law from discussing individual taxpayers.
Yianni Varonis, spokesman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, made the following statement: “Senator Brown is concerned about the backlog and its effect on Ohio’s workers. That’s why he’s urged the IRS to expedite its process so that local organizations providing important services get the tax-exempt status they deserve. Sen. Brown will continue to fight so that workers and organizations can focus on serving their communities and not the red tape of the IRS.”
Grom remains frustrated but still dedicated to attacking incivility.
Parallel to public smoking
He points to changes in attitudes toward smoking as an example of how seemingly impossible tasks can be accomplished.
At one time, he said, people smoked in airplanes, restaurants, hospitals and other public places and thought it would always be that way. But society changed.
“Who would have ever thought that that kind of a social change would take place?” he said. “In my vision, having pundits and commentators on television yelling and interrupting and calling each other names is going to seem just as out of place as smoking on an airplane. I think it can be done. I think civility can win out over time. I think most people want to be civil, they just don’t know how.”
The television show can be seen at http://my.pegcentral.com/.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.