August 9, 2022

Budget Needs Let Fireworks Fly Lawfully

Colorful pyrotechnics with names like “Untamed Retribution” and “Rain Fire” will paint the skies above backyards and beaches as consumers find it easier to buy fireworks and elected officials try to reap the benefits.

Desperate to find any source of untapped revenue, many cities, counties and states are scrapping decades-old restrictions on firework sales, trying to rescue budgets battered by several years of economic doldrums.

A 65-year-old ban on fireworks in Hawkins County, Tenn., was lifted in May after a county commissioner persuaded colleagues that the sales could generate as much as $200,000 in annual permit fees and sales tax revenue.

“Every penny helps,” said Shane Bailey, the county commissioner.

Still, dry conditions have led parts of the South to buck the trend, especially in Texas, where months of severe drought have prompted many counties to restrict or ban fireworks. Other states worried about wildfires, like Florida and Arizona, have imposed their own limitations.

But in many places, concerns about safety have been trumped by the need for more cash and an “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality. Officials in some states, like Pennsylvania, have eased their worries by limiting firework sales for their own residents but allowing out-of-state customers to binge on a vast array of exotic offerings.

“I think the Pennsylvania lawmakers, if they are going to make it illegal for Pennsylvania residents to buy those heavy-duty fireworks, they should ban them completely,” said Harry Wyatt, the mayor of Phillipsburg, N.J., which is on the state line.

The fireworks industry generated $952 million in sales in 2010, a record, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, and all signs point to big numbers in 2011 as well. Sales to consumers account for roughly two-thirds of the total.

Only four states continue to ban firework sales: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware. Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group, said that a decade ago, sales were permitted in only about half the states. Several, including New Hampshire and Kentucky, have loosened restrictions to allow merchants to sell a wider variety, she said.

One of the main reasons bans are being lifted is that residents can simply drive to the next town, or state, to buy fireworks.

“I’m tired of other counties sucking us dry,” said Mr. Bailey, the county commissioner in Tennessee, who said Hawkins County now had a dozen or so fireworks stands. “It’s a concern when our tax dollars fund services in surrounding counties and we need to improve infrastructure at home.”

In Nebraska, Jim Suttle, the mayor of Omaha, said his city lifted its fireworks ban because everyone was buying them anyway but driving to nearby towns to spend the money.

Even though fireworks were illegal, he said, “we just kind of turned our heads, and the whole city was alive with people having fun.” Since the ban has been lifted, he said, “the response has been very, very positive. I would say 92 to 95 percent of the population supports this.” Fireworks in Omaha are sold by charities.

The loosening of restrictions on consumer sales comes as some strapped local governments have cut back on large fireworks displays or eliminated them altogether to cut costs. Even in this, however, there is new light for the industry. Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars, which is producing 400 fireworks shows this Fourth of July, including New York City’s, said his business had stayed even after dropping 5 percent each of the last two years.

Governments are increasingly turning to community groups and private donations to help cover the costs of fireworks, industry officials say. The city of Laguna Beach, Calif., for example, held fund-raisers throughout the spring to pay for Monday’s celebration.

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