Buried in the newly adopted Town of Fort Myers Beach 2016-2017 budget is bad news for the thousands of residents and visitors who enjoy fireworks shows on New Year’s Eve and the 4th of July. The Town has not budgeted any funds for either fireworks show after agreeing to partner with the business community to keep the event going a year ago.
Director of Administrative Services for the Town, Maureen Rischitelli, confirmed Thursday that there is no money set aside for fireworks for either New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July.
“Bay Oaks will do their cake and ice cream event for the Town’s birthday on New Year’s Eve, but there’s nothing else budgeted from the Town’s perspective.”
Interim Town Manager Jim Steele confirmed the absence of any Town fireworks plans.
“We had hoped to raise money for fireworks, but it’s not in the budget,” Steele said.
No one on Town staff is actively raising money for fireworks according to Steele and Rischitelli.
“We had a very tight budget this year in order to keep the tax rate at 0.80. We added a salary for parks, recreation and the pool, plus a salary for a second code enforcement officer,” said Steele. “We also added docks at bay accesses and work at Bay Oaks.”
A line item in the current budget for $48,000 for Bay Oaks special events is earmarked for the 4th of July parade and other events and might be flexible according to Steele. Last year that line item was budgeted at $8,000.
Bay Oaks’ 4th of July plans include a parade and a possible family picnic and pancake breakfast at Bay Oaks, Rischitelli explained.
Back from the Brink
The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and business community have pulled the holiday light shows back from the brink several times in the past few years.
In setting the 2015-2016 budget, Town Council agreed to provide up to $25,000 in matching funds for fireworks, with the expectation that the community would raise the remaining funds. Fireworks shows on the beach cost about $50,000. Approximately half of that is permitting fees, public safety and trolley costs for each event.
In late December 2015, the business community had to rally quickly to raise funds to pay for trolleys for the New Year’s Eve celebration after Town Council voted in October 2015 to end a 20-year tradition of paying for trolleys on holidays. On learning that there would be no trolleys to provide visitor transportation, Lallo rallied beach businesses and raised over $5500 in just days to fund extended trolley service for the event.
In April 2016 fireworks were on the chopping block as not enough money had been raised to match the Town’s contribution. That was when local business owners stepped forward and formed a Fireworks Fundraising Committee. Led by Jacki Liszak, owner of Sea Gypsy Inn, and including Pete’s Time Out owner John Lallo, Silver Sands’ Andrea Carriere and Bud Nocera, President of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, the group rallied both residents and the business owners anxious to save an island tradition.
At that time, Liszak explained the effort would be an ongoing project, so beach residents and visitors could be assured that there would be fireworks for the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve.
“We decided we wanted to create a permanent group that would help fund both fireworks, so the Town knows the money will be there.”
The group has been successful, pulling together the business community to hold fundraisers to fill the fireworks coffers. But that doesn’t matter if the Town does not participate.
In April, Liszak acknowledged that the fireworks event belongs to the Town and they would need to handle permitting. Without that partnership and with less than three months to go before New Year’s Eve, it looks like there will be cupcakes in Time Square and little else in the way of community celebration for New Year’s Eve.
Chamber of Commerce and Fireworks Fundraising Committee members had not been informed of the Town’s change in plans and were shocked when they heard the news this week from a representative of Garden State Fireworks who contacted them seeking a deposit. The representative indicated that he had been told that ‘the Chamber is in charge of this” by a council member, which is not the case. The committee was helping to fund fireworks, but it was the Town’s event.
“This comes as a complete surprise to the Chamber and fundraising committee,” said Chamber President Bud Nocera on Thursday. “I wonder when we would have found out about this if we hadn’t heard from the fireworks company? The fireworks are already sitting in North Port for our show.
“This past year, the business community has stepped up and partnered with the town to make sure the business community’s contribution toward fireworks is there,” Nocera said, “we even added funds to pay for trolleys.”
John Lallo was not happy to hear the news, but deferred comment from the Fireworks Fundraising Committee to Jacki Liszak, who is currently out of town.
Dave Anderson, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that this is an event for the entire community.
“This is not a business event – it’s a community event for residents, guests, non-resident taxpayers and visitors, all of whom will be disappointed when there are no fireworks. Last year we partnered with the Town to support this event. It’s disappointing that the Town has backed out of that arrangement and not informed us. What else has been removed from the Town budget that we don’t know about yet?”
Dropping funding for trolleys on holidays and now cancelling fireworks shows on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve has led some to question such anti-tourism moves by a Town dependent on tourism.
“In every other tourism destination, the city or town government understands and encourages the tourism economy,” said Nocera.
“There’s something very ‘Grinch-like’ about this.”