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Cities struggle to keep Memorial Day, Fourth of July celebrations alive

Kiichiro Sato / AP

Fireworks explode over Lake Michigan Sunday, July 4, 2010, in Chicago.

Summer holidays may be a little quieter this year in some cash-strapped American cities, but others are taking steps to make sure fallen soldiers are remembered on Memorial Day and the nation's birth is celebrated with a bang on the Fourth of July.

New Rochelle, N.Y., last week announced it was canceling Independence Day fireworks costing it $75,000 and axing budgets for Memorial Day and Thanksgiving parades, which cost $30,000 each to put on, NBCNewYork.com reported. Private donors stepped up to keep the parades afloat, officials said. They are not so sure they can raise enough money in time to light up the skies July Fourth.

The city was one of several that announced fireworks cancellations recently. 

Public donations and corporate sponsorships pay for the fireworks in about 75 percent of the nation’s approximately 14,000 municipal displays during the week of Independence Day, Philip Butler, spokesman for Fireworks by Grucci, told msnbc.com. City and town governments -- taxpayers -- mainly pay for the events’ police and fire protection, he said. That's a change from the 1980s and '90s, he said, when more than 70 percent of the pyrotechnics were paid with government funds.

Grucci, which will put on 84 shows ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 each the week of July 4, was scheduled to put on the New Rochelle show, Butler said. Grucci will hold the town's reservation until June 1.

“It’s prevalent all across the country,” Butler said. “It’s a sin politicians pull budgets for entertainment -- and not just fireworks but events like summer concerts, too."

New Rochelle's financial problems mirror other cities' woes. Pension and health insurance costs rose while revenue from sales and property taxes dropped, officials said.

Gregory Minchak, National League of Cities spokesman, told msnbc.com that city budgets across the country are still being cut, although the pace has slowed.

City finances, largely driven by property taxes, lag even if the economy starts to improve, Minchak said. Property tax revenues fell when housing values dropped, he said, but it takes a while for higher assessments to kick in when values start to rise again.

“Any time you have high unemployment – the national rate was 8.1 percent in April – that also affects city finances,” Minchak said. Local governments lay off workers and people spend less in their communities, driving down sales-tax revenues.

But city finances won't keep bombs from bursting in the air everywhere.

"Communities will rally around their fireworks displays," said Stephen Vitale, president of New Castle, Penn.-based Pyrotecnico, which is putting on more than 650 Fourth of July fireworks displays. Vitale said the pyrotechnic industry is largely recession-proof.

Some communities save money by setting off fireworks on July 3 or on the weekends before or after the Fourth, lessening police and firefighter overtime pay, Vitale said. Overtime often is double regular pay on a holiday but only time-and-a-half other days.

Todd Reichenbach, of Billings, Mont.-based Pyro F/X, told msnbc.com his company will put on seven municipal shows ranging from $15,000 to $40,000.

“We had to say no to four towns,” Reichenbach said.

“Montana is a bit more isolated,” he said of the state’s economy. “When the rest of the country is doing good, we’re not as good; when the rest of the country is hurting, we’re not as bad,” he said.

Here's a sampling of communities' approaches to celebrations for Memorial Day, considered the summer kickoff, and Independence Day:

  • Batavia, Ill., has put on a fireworks show annually for 60 years and never spent taxpayer dollars on buying the fireworks, Mayor Jeff Schielke told msnbc.com. The Chicago suburb of 26,000 gets behind two annual fund-raisers, he said. One pits a team of police and firefighters against a team of teachers in a basketball game; the other is a citywide garage sale, which last week included 200 homes with owners paying $25 each to host shoppers from throughout the region. This year's fireworks display will cost $35,000 to $40,000, Schielke said.
  • Hanford, Calif., will be one of three San Joaquin Valley cities each getting a $10,000 grant in to feature a laser light show that is less polluting than fireworks, Mike Bertaina, president of the Hanford of Chamber of Commerce, told msnbc.com. The other cities in a pilot program that covers about half a laser show's cost will be decided soon, said Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the valley's Air Pollution Control District. District governors decided to try the substitution to ease ozone pollution, usually a winter problem, seen with a spike in particulate matter after July Fourth fireworks, Holt told msnbc.com. "Fireworks have metals and other toxic materials contributing to ozone through combustion that puts toxic material into the environment," Holt said.
  • San Ramon, Calif., wants to get the word out that out-of-town fireworks fans should go elsewhere July 4 since the city cut its annual show, a tradition since 1985, the San Ramon Express News reported. The San Francisco suburb plans to end its Fourth of July festivities by 6 p.m. so its own resident revelers have time to go to other Bay Area communities where fireworks shows survive. The Express News said the city would have spent $318,000 if it put on a fireworks event this year, up from $175,000 in 2011. This year's scaled-back July 4 celebratiion, aimed only at city residents and featuring a symphony concert, a funk-and-soul band and an armed forces salute, will cost only $41,580, the Express News said.
  • Chicago in 2010 ended a three-decade tradition of July 3 fireworks linked to the 10-day Taste of Chicago festival at Grant Park, city officials said. The only official July 4 fireworks continue at Navy Pier, run by a civic organization. To save money, the Taste of Chicago this year will be scaled back to five days and not start until July 11, officials said.
  • North Providence, R.I., will bring back Independence Day fireworks for the first time in four years and enhance its Memorial Day parade after an April fund-raising dance raised more money, over $10,000, than expected, the weekly Valley Breeze reported. Severe budget cuts had killed July Fourth fireworks, the newspaper said.
  • Sea Bright, N.J., last week canceled oceanfront July Fourth fireworks because the 11-person Police Department could not find 10 to 15 officers from other communities to work that day despite offering $72 per hour to patrol an expected crowd of 35,000 visitors, The Hub newspaper reported. Neighboring Red Bank, citing increasing security costs, canceled its 50-year-old KaBoom festival, planned July 3. Town officials said the event was a victim of its own success, bringing 100,000 visitors to town in 2011.
  • Woodstown, N.J., will bring back Fourth of July fireworks, thanks to the sponsorship of the Woodstown-Pilesgove Business Association, the Newark Star-Ledger reported.
  • Marion, Mass., selectmen canceled their fireworks show because of a lack of fund-raising since last year’s event but hope to bring back pyrotechnics next year, the SippicanVillageSoup weekly newspaper reported.

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