The Town Council of Fort Myers Beach at its September 21 meeting agreed to fully fund the community’s celebration for the Fourth of July, including fireworks, while denying monies for the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks that coincides with the Town’s birthday. This imperils the traditional New Year’s Eve program that culminates with fireworks off the Fort Myers Beach pier at midnight and local volunteer fundraisers struggled to understand the implications of Council’s action.
“Fireworks are only roughly one-third the total cost of community celebrations like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve,” said Jacki Liszak, who is an original member of the citizens fireworks committee to raise funds for the shows, as well as now being the Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of The Sea Gypsy Inn. “Security is close to another one-third of the price. Only council member Anita Cereceda seems to understand that, whether we have fireworks or not, these national holidays will still draw huge crowds to the island that will require security and possibly traffic control, so that expense will not go away.”
As of this week, the citizens fireworks committee had no plans to raise money for New Year Eve fireworks or a related event like a laser light show. “We cannot go to the beach businesses at this time, when they are still reeling from losses associated with Hurricane Irma, and in good conscience ask them for contributions for New Year’s Eve, as there is not a lot of discretionary income out there right now,” related Liszak.
“Council’s actions basically eliminated fireworks on New Year’s Eve, at least for this year, although we certainly understand that they made this as a financial decision. Maybe as our local economy recovers and the Town has a better idea of how they will allocate funds for different aspects of New Year’s Eve, someone can step forward to raise $20,000 for fireworks, or a smaller amount for a laser show.”
The timing of council’s decision means that there is not enough time for anyone to raise funds for New Year’s Eve as full funding is required about two months in advance of the event. $20,000 would need to be raised during October, just as most beach businesses are recovering from losses due to Hurricane Irma.
According to Council, the Town will still host their traditional cupcakes and the beach ball drop at midnight, as well as Bay Oaks Recreation Center family programs. There will also be privately-funded events like live music all day in Times Square – put on by the Time Square Merchant & Event Association, so there will be public activities that day. “In a large-scale event like this,” Liszak explained, “The Town must be a full partner because smaller entities like the Chamber cannot own this for a number of reasons, including security, permitting and liability insurance.”
Absence Make The Heart Grow Fonder
“Sometimes events like New Year’s Eve fireworks have to go away for a while for you to discover how much you actually appreciate them,” Liszak said philosophically. “This year, without fireworks, we can see how much money the Town will allocate for security and trolleys and signage and permitting, and all the other things associated with large community programs. They may discover that the only savings are the fireworks cost, so we need to ensure the Town follows up on those other commitments.”
What Liszak does find mysterious is how the Town arrived at its $72,000 amount for the Fourth of July fireworks show. “The latest figures we have from last New Year’s Eve indicated total expenditures at roughly $53,000 including $20,000 for fireworks, $15,000 for security, and the rest for things like the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District, trolley, signage, staffing and permitting.”
Council itself seemed confused by these costs when debating their September 21st decision. Council member Joanne Shamp, in initiating the discussion, stated that the combined events on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve cost the Town $55,000 to $60,000 for each show, stating that “blowing up $120,000 is a lot!”
Town Manager Roger Hernstadt interjected that $65,000 each was a more accurate figure. “There is the sheriff and fire department and staff time and permitting; there is so much involved in fireworks,” added Vice Mayor Tracey Gore. Mayor Dennis Boback suggested funding only fireworks for one of the two events, “at $26,000 and call it a day,” with Gore countering that “you cannot do fireworks for that.”
Council member Anita Cereceda thought the Town should continue to pay for both events, with community fundraising assistance as in the past several years. “These are holidays, whether you blow up fireworks or not,” she said. “You are still going to have a very large police bill, so the only savings will be the fireworks. Clearly, I will lose this vote, but we are raising millage and raising parking but cutting an event. This is a hideous decision, and I will not support the budget because of it.”
“This makes me mad as hell!”
The $72,000 Question
Council debated the $72,000 allocation for the Fourth of July, based apparently on $52,000 for fireworks, $15,000 for security, and $5,000 for staffing, more than doubling the fireworks amount while not addressing prospective expenses like the trolley. Equally as confusing is where Council will pull funds for event security, as the Lee County Sheriff’s Office appears in three different Town budget lines.
Town Council then approved by a 3 to 2 vote, with Boback and Cereceda against, up to $72,000 to entirely fund the Fourth of July event, while participating in New Year’s Eve with the traditional cupcakes and ball drop. Boback voted in opposition, “I am not spending $72,000 for fireworks. Get a corporate sponsor!” Cereceda added, “There will still be New Year’s Eve security cost.” “Maybe not,” Boback responded, “because without fireworks the sheriff may not pass on those charges.”
“My final comment, is cutting an event like this that is so important is so shortsighted,” said Cereceda. Council then approved its final 2017-18 Operating Budget 4 to 1, with Cereceda against in opposition to the fireworks decision.