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 telling the business community a year ago, that if the fireworks shows were to continue, community fundraising efforts would need to cover the costs of the actual fireworks. The Town would cover other costs associated with the event. That was then. Now there is a variety of opinion as to who promised what and when.
Director of Administrative Services for the Town, Maureen Rischitelli, confirmed last Thursday that there is no money set aside for a fireworks event 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.”
Bay Oaks’ 4th of July plans include a parade and a possible family picnic and pancake breakfast at Bay Oaks, Rischitelli explained.
Interim Town Manager Jim Steele confirmed the absence of any Town fireworks event plans.
“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.”
Still, Steele said he’d like to find a way to make fireworks happen.
“The Town is willing to work with Time Square, the Fundraising Committee and the Chamber to see that we have fireworks,” Steele said later this week. “To expend over $25,000, though, we have to have council approval and we may need to use contingency funds.”
When asked if there was funding in other departments, such as Public Works or Parks and Recreation, to cover any fireworks event costs, he explained that there was $48,000 in the Bay Oaks budget, meant to cover 4th of July parade costs, the Town’s birthday celebration and any other special events that Bay Oaks plans. He said an additional $25,000 in a special events budget is for Sheriff or Fire expenses related to Town events. He indicated that some of these funds might be available to assist with support costs for a fireworks event.
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. The Semmer family coordinated fireworks and fundraisers for 23 years before passing the baton in 2011. The first few years after that, the town has mostly picked up the tab while asking for community support.
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.
At the March 21, 2016 Town Council meeting, Rischitelli itemized the 2015 New Year’s Eve fireworks event costs: fireworks-$20,000, Lee County Sheriff-$10,000, Fort Myers Beach Fire-$3,180, traffic control-$1,200, Suncoast Portables-$800, pier cleanup-$650, Advanced Disposal dumpster-$475, various supplies-$300, Parks and Rec staff-$1,966, Public Works staff-$6,672. Total cost-$47,225. Trolley services add $5,000-$6,000.
In late December 2015, the business community rallied 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, John Lallo of Pete’s Time Out rallied beach businesses and raised over $5,500 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 business owners anxious to save an island tradition.
At that time, Liszak promised that 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. After providing $25,000 for the 4th of July fireworks, they have at least that much set aside already for future fireworks events. They have another fundraising event planned at Shamrock Pub on October 22nd and have several more events planned for January-April.
Meeting this week, the Fundraising Committee is hopeful that fireworks can still be saved.
“The Fundraising Committee plans to seek clarification from the Town regarding the Town’s participation in any future fireworks celebration,” said John Lallo.
The committee’s understanding has been that they were expected to cover the costs of the actual fireworks and the Town handled permitting and other costs of the celebration. If that’s no longer the case, no one from the Town has informed them.
In what appears to be a lack of communication, Town staff echoes that no one from the committee attended budget hearings or notified the Town that they were planning to raise funds for future fireworks events.
Council member Tracey Gore said she was unaware that the committee had raised any funds.
“The committee never shared (that information) with me or the Council publicly to date,” Gore said. “Since my family, our friends and I stopped fundraising and coordinating the island fireworks a few years back, previous councils have told the businesses and Chamber that the town would not continue to fund for the Fireworks and expenses that go with the events with taxpayer money,” Gore said.
“I would not be able to comment on whether or not I would support giving away taxpayer money to the Chamber and a few businesses for the New Year’s Eve Fireworks event without knowing more information – like how much they want, have they started the permitting process with the county, town, sheriff, DEP, fire, etc.? The council has not been approached for any funds for New Years Eve Fireworks to date. But, my personal record of fundraising for fireworks on this island speaks for itself.”
Council member Anita Cereceda would like to see the events continue.
“These are two major community events. Fort Myers Beach considers itself the family Island and what bigger family day is there than the 4th of July! December 31st marks the town’s anniversary and for me that’s a very special day for our community. During our budget discussion I specifically said I didn’t believe that the town should fund fireworks. Meaning actual fireworks, not the event. So yes, I would absolutely support finding a way for the town to participate in both of these events.”
Fireworks Fundraising Committee members were shocked when a representative of Garden State Fireworks contacted them seeking a deposit. The representative was told by someone at Town Hall that, “the Town is no longer in the fireworks business. Call the Fort Myers Beach Chamber.”
“This comes as a complete surprise to the Chamber and fundraising committee,” said Chamber President Bud Nocera last 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.”
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 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.”
Meanwhile the Fundraising Committee is optimistic and continues to work on raising funds to support fireworks shows.
“These two events are huge priorities for Fort Myers Beach as a community,” Fireworks Committee member John Lallo said. “Let’s find a way to continue these big events.”
A version of this story was originally published at fortmyersbeach.news on October 6, 2016.