Decorations group’s status still in limbo - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Decorations group’s status still in limbo

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Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2005 5:11 am | Updated: 9:20 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

An organization headed by Tempe City Councilman Johnny G. "Hut" Hutson is still in business a year after questions arose about whether it should be registered as a charity.

Hutson founded the Friends of Tempe Butte in 1985. He has served as its president, fundraiser and treasurer ever since. He’s always run it rather loosely.

The purpose of the group is to place Christmas symbols on Hayden and Bell buttes in Tempe every year.

Hutson and his volunteers put lighted wood cutouts of the Three Wise Men riding camels on Hayden Butte near Sun Devil Stadium. They similarly put a snowman family on Bell Butte near Wyndham Buttes Resort.

"I enjoy it. I really enjoy it. I look forward to it each year," Hutson said Friday.

Plans call for the Wise Men and the snowmen to take their usual places Saturday.

The expense associated with the effort really is anyone’s guess. Hutson runs the organization’s finances through a personal account.

On Friday, he said the electric bill for the Hayden Butte display comes to about $35 to $50 annually. Last year, he said it came to $200 to $300 annually.

On Friday, he said he sends letters to about 50 people annually soliciting help. Last year, he said he sent letters to about 100 people.

If the organization was registered as a charity, its financial books would be open for review. They’re not.

After questions arose last year, Hutson said he would file the appropriate paperwork. However, he learned that his organization is something other than a charity, he said.

"It took me three months of digging to find out that I don’t even qualify for that. I don’t fall under that rule at all," Hutson said.

The rule, according to Arizona statute, concerns whether the organization "employs a charitable appeal as the basis of a solicitation."

"I do not solicit to the general public — that’s one big thing," Hutson said.

"I send out a letter asking people asking if they would like to contribute that are people that help me or have asked me to send them this letter," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which registers charities, said it’s up to each organization to determine its own status. Complaints about organizations operating as charities are forwarded to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for investigation.

Beginning in the 1930s, Tempe erected the decorations for decades until Mayor Harry Mitchell asked Hutson to take over in 1985, because the American Civil Liberties Union was concerned about using public funds to maintain religious decorations.

Over the years, Hutson has served in various capacities for nearly two dozen charities — though that list still doesn’t include Friends of Tempe Butte.

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