News 12 Special Assignment: Charity short change

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A Georgia regulation could be lining the state's pockets by taking away money from charities. An employee with the Department of Revenue was so upset about it that he contacted News 12. We went to work, and what our investigation uncovered could change a state law and help a father continue his fight to help kids with cancer.

Her smile melted his heart. Her illness broke it.

"We got the news that Joanna was sick Christmas Eve 2002," Jeff McAfee told News 12.

He also told us about the day his wife was changing their little girl's clothes and found something that would change their family's life.

"She was trying to put jeans on Joanna, and the jeans did not fit. And she knew something was not right, so she came to me and said, 'Jeff feel this.'"

"This" turned out to be a tumor. Joanna was only 3 years old.

She was diagnosed with Stage IV Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma. It's a very aggressive form of cancer. Jeff described some of Joanna's treatment as "barbaric."

But Joanna survived.

Two years later, on Mother's Day, Joanna was too weak from a round of chemotherapy to climb a cancer survivor's hill, so her older brother carried her. When she reached the top, she threw her arms up, as if in victory.

That summer, doctors declared Joanna had no evidence of disease in her body.

But one year later, it returned.

"There were literally hundreds of small tumors on her abdomen," Jeff said. "There was nothing anyone could do. When they told Joanna, she was going to be with Jesus, she wasn't afraid. But she did want ... directions. She said, 'I don't know how to go. I don't know how to go to heaven.'"

Six months later, Joanna passed away.

"When you lose a child, one of the greatest fears is that they will be forgotten," Jeff said.

That's why he became a cheerleader in memory of his favorite Georgia cheerleader. He started a foundation in her name to help other kids like her.

Two years later, he was running the Joanna McAfee Childhood Cancer Foundation in Warner Robbins, Ga. Its logo proudly displays Joanna's victory silhouette. It took a couple of years for Jeff to get the signatures and support he needed to have a Joanna specialty plate. You can read the bill here.

Even Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue recognized the effort. Jeff proudly displays a photo of the governor with his family. Gov. Perdue even signed it, writing the words "Bests wishes." The picture reminds Jeff of the celebration in Atlanta for the birth of the Joanna tag.

Two years later, Perdue signed a bill that has crippled the foundation.

By the end of the month, the foundation has to close its office.

"Is it just heartbreaking to have to pack everything up?" asked News 12's Meredith Anderson.

"It is, but it's just a reality," Jeff said.

That reality is because of House Bill 1055, which passed in May 2010. It reads: For specialty plates "the fee is $35 of which $25 is to be deposited into the state's general fund and $10 is to be dedicated to the sponsoring agency, fund or nonprofit corporation." As for renewals, it's the same: $35 a year with only $10 going to the nonprofit.

For specialty plates, the $25 dollar fee, or manufacturing fee, used to be a one-time fee. With the new law, even though the plate has already been issued, the driver has to continue to pay it.

It paved the way for the state to make millions. But a Department of Revenue employee believes it's just wrong. He contacted News 12 because he wants you to see the other side of this and not the side that wants to fill a massive budget hole. He's upset because about the side he believes the law gives the state a license to take money from charities.

We went to work, and here's what we found. After crunching the numbers, we noticed a more than 40 percent decline in specialty plates like the Joanna tag since the law passed in 2010.

When News 12 started investigating and contacted Jeff, he had already started packing up his office. Simply put, House Bill 1055 made it impossible for him to pay the foundation's bills.

"And keep in mind, we didn't get the Joanna tags until about two years after we started, but about 25 percent of our income, roughly 25 percent, has been derived from the sales of the Joanna tag," he said.

That money has been a big help to 12-year-old LaStacia Lowther and her family.

"I was 3 when I first had my first surgery," LaStacia said.

Since then, however, she's had six more. Another one is scheduled for the end of the month, and her mother wishes it could be her last. It won't be.

"It goes away, and then it comes back, even more worse than the last time," said Lena Lowther. "So she's really been through it."

LaStacia has trouble walking, and when the cancer spread to her brain, it attacked her eyes.

"It was just so terrible seeing her lose her sight," Lena said.

The Lowthers also feel terrible that the very foundation helping her family is having to close its office all because of a state law.

LaStacia's father is worried about the effect it will have on people all over the state.

"When they do that, they're not just taking money from my family, they're taking money from other people that need the McAfee Foundation," James Lowther told News 12.

The Georgia law is also taking money away from those looking to prevent, detect and treat childhood cancer. To date, The Joanna McAfee Foundation has given 18 research grants and is credited in journals and clinical trials all over the country.

While the Joanna tag was making a difference, the state is now making money.

Since the law passed, the foundation has lost thousands, but Jeff's figures show the state has raked in $7,665, just off the extra fees that are now attached to the Joanna tag.

But he's not angry.

He says when Joanna faced obstacle after obstacle, she never complained. Not once.

"That's the reason you'll never hear us complain about what we're going through, including the fact that we're packing this stuff up and having to readjust what we're having to do as a Foundation," he said.

But the numbers we found can speak for him. They can also speak for all the kids Joanna is helping. We took our research to a state lawmaker, and he was not happy. In fact, he's promising to introduce a bill to make sure the state no longer profits off tags that benefit nonprofits.

You'll hear from him tomorrow on News 12 at 6 o'clock.

As for specialty plates for nonprofits, it's not easy for charities to get
a tag in the first place. Jeff said lawmakers had to pass a bill for the Joanna tag to even be considered. Then, he had to get 1,000 signatures and pay for all advertising to get the word out. So that's why it hurts even more that the state is making money off this.

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