As a matter of principle, members of the Annapolis firefighters union are facing fines of up to $1,000 a day and six-month prison terms. Their offense: selling breast cancer awareness T-shirts.

"We're trying to do something good for the community and we're getting hassled," said union President Lt. Caroll Spriggs.

City officials told the union it needs a solicitor's license to collect donations on public property, setting off a debate that divided the city council and infuriated the union. The notice came just days after the first $1,000 raised by the firefighters was stolen from a firehouse safe left unlocked while they responded to a call. Though police found the man who they said rolled into the Taylor Avenue station on a 10-speed bike and rolled out with the cash, he only had $22 when arrested, records show.

Firefighters, Spriggs said, felt targeted by city officials.

"To me, soliciting is going door to door," Spriggs said. "I have nothing against the Girl Scouts, but do they have to fill this [form] out?"

The debate over the $12 shirts spilled into city council chambers this week when Alderman Fred Paone brought up the matter and chastised city leadership.

"These are our own firefighters, for goodness' sake," Paone said. "Why are we enforcing it on them?"

Mayor Joshua Cohen, who tried to mediate, said the city must uphold its own rules. He offered to waive the license's $35 fee if the union acquiesced on the paperwork.

"I know some folks in the firefighters union felt like City Hall's just throwing up red tape," Cohen said. "It's a simple one-page form."

The firefighters, though, see it as more. They bought the pink shirts to wear at work every day in October. They decided to give away the hundreds of extras to anyone who requested one, in exchange for a donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

"You're missing the point," Spriggs said of Cohen. "We are not soliciting. And I'm not going to fill out that form."

Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson said she was embarrassed by the city's actions and a little perplexed by the regulation.

"You know the adage that no good deed goes unpunished?" she said. "I can see why we might do it for the general public because we don't know who those people are. We know who our firefighters are."

Alderman Ross Arnett came to the defense of the city and criticized the firefighters for demanding special treatment.

"I just don't understand their behavior," Arnett said. "They want us to enforce fire codes, why don't they want us to enforce this code?"

While the city has yet to issue a citation for the offense — a misdemeanor that carries up to a $1,000 fine and six months in prison for each day without a license — Arnett said he hopes the city goes after the union.

"This is silly," Arnett said. "They're being belligerent for no reason. How hard is it to fill out a one-page form? They aren't above the law. Nobody is."

The firefighters, meanwhile, are expecting another shipment of T-shirts.

ecox@baltsun.com