Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is mired in controversy

6:41 PM, Oct 18, 2012   |    comments
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Indian Shores, Florida - For 40 years Ralph Heath has been talking to his birds, and they've been talking back. "Peeps-come here Peeps," he calls to an oystercatcher inside a cage, and the bird obligingly "peeps" back.

And Heath boasts of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary's accomplishments, like a successful breeding program for brown pelicans. "To date we've had over a thousand baby pelicans," he says.

Plus, there are the thousands of injured birds rehabbed at the hospital each year and released back into the wild. "You always think, I hope that bird is going to make it," says Heath of the releases. "But how long is it going to be before something that has to do with man hurts him again."

And it's that kind of work that has people donating to and visiting the Indian Shores facility year after year. "We just love seeing the birds and the good work that Mr. Heath does-he does a wonderful job," says Jacky Simmons, a British tourist.

But now, birds aren't the only ones squawking about the place. "The situation I feel right now is the worst it's ever been," says Greg Slutzky, who has volunteered and worked at the sanctuary for seven years, primarily doing rescue missions.

Slutzky and others tell 10 News the sanctuary is a fiscal mess and the government's getting involved too. The IRS has filed liens for unpaid payroll taxes and the Department of Labor is investigating because workers haven't been paid.

"I haven't been paid in nine weeks, but I'm still willing to work there," says Slutzky.

However, Slutzky says the sanctuary has bigger problems than missing payroll. He says he decided to speak out about mismanagement after a local couple inquired about a boat they had donated for rescue work.  "I never saw that boat, never even heard of that boat," says Slutzky.

Former employee Robin Vergara, who helped raise money for the sanctuary, says he quit that position because there was no accountability. "He (Heath) claims almost a million dollars in program costs- what are those programs, where's that money going? That's the problem," says Vergara.

Heath denies mismanagement. He says any money taken in goes to support the bird rehab mission. However, he admits workers haven't been paid and that the sanctuary's financial situation is dire. He blames the economy.

"Our expenses have increased and our donations have gone down, so it's put us in a financial bind," says Heath. The sanctuary has now put out a new fundraising plea and wants to raise $100,000 in the next 60 days.

"I wouldn't give that place a dime," says Vergara and he's organizing people to spur change at the sanctuary or to even start a new rescue group.  The effort has this Facebook page.

But as for Heath, he says he's not about to fly away. "I think they're just kicking us when we're down."

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