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Big Splash: Sales of fireworks by the Petaluma Swim Club prove so successful that the annual event pays for the rental of the water in which local youths swim, says club president Martin Lipman.
Petaluma non-profits worry officials will rekindle ban on "safe and sane" fireworks
By David Templeton
W ITH A GOOD FIVE months to go till the Fourth of July, the Petaluma City Council has taken temporary steps to avoid a public confrontation that would have amounted to an early --and potentially noisy--display of civic fireworks. A scheduled vote to ban the sale and use of all fireworks (the safe-and-sane kind, with showering sparks and razzle-dazzle), which was originally set for Feb. 3, was first postponed to Feb. 17. Now, according to Councilman Matt Maguire, the vote has been dropped from the agenda altogether, in part owing to a postcard campaign by the city's many non-profit groups and youth sports clubs, most of which look to the annual sales of sparklers and showering fountains as a crucial fundraising event.
"It's a non-issue at this point," says Maguire, who had been leading the movement to establish the no-fireworks ordinance within city limits as a fire-prevention measure. "We did receive some postcards, but there are frankly a lot more important things before this City Council right now. We may take a look at it again further down the line, though at this point I don't anticipate any further action this year. But I do think fireworks should be illegal in Petaluma," he adds. "I just haven't been able to figure out how to replace that revenue to the non-profits."
Councilwoman Jane Hamilton--a candidate for the 2nd District supervisorial seat, agrees. Sort of. "I was impressed and swayed by a petition we received from the Fireman's Association asking us to ban the sale of fireworks," she states. "But I'm wrestling with it. I really am. I do hear the non-profit groups that truly have no other way of raising the kind of money they need to do the wonderful things they do."
Mayor Patti Hilligoss is more to the point: "We should keep safe-and-sane fireworks in Petaluma. It's the only way the non-profits can go on."
According to Petaluma Fire Marshall Michael Ginn, the city has received nearly 800 postcards in support of continued fireworks sales. A petition with almost 1,000 signatures, according to Hamilton, has also been presented to the council. Should the issue have remained on the council's agenda, a massive show of force was planned with representatives of various clubs, including the Boy Scouts, the Little League, Pop Warner Football, the Petaluma Swim Club, the McDowell Drug Task Force, and even a couple of ballet schools.
This grassroots uproar began last year when a fireworks ban was also narrowly averted; the compromise was a limit on the number of fireworks stands allowed--a maximum of 20--and the type of organizations that would be granted permits. With few exceptions--a couple of longtime, profit-based booths were grandfathered in--only non-profit organizations are allowed to sell the pyrotechnic confections, and for only six days before July 4. Wary that another move to ban the sales might come up this year, a loose coalition of youth sports groups stayed prepared for action, ready to raise a stink should the issue be brought up again by the council.
For the last several years only legal fireworks--designated "safe and sane" by the state of California--have been sold in Petaluma.
"The law is very restrictive about how personal-use fireworks can perform," explains Ginn. "They can't move, they can't fly, they can only shoot sparks. No bottle rockets, no firecrackers. Which doesn't mean you can't have injuries or fires with safe and sane, only that the risk is reduced when they're used appropriately and with adult supervision. Anytime you have fireworks, you have a potential for a fire."
Even so, Ginn remains undecided on the subject. "As fire marshall, I'm bound to take the position that anything that could cause a fire should go," he says. "On the other hand, there is no real history of problems with the safe-and-sane products in this city. We've had a few incidents over the last few years, but as far as we can tell, all of them were caused by illegal fireworks brought in from out of the county. And obviously I'm aware of the impact a ban would have on the non-profit groups."
According to Martin Lipman, president of the Petaluma Swim Club, $150,000 was raised by the combined youth-sports clubs of Petaluma last year. The PSC itself--serving 75 swimmers year round--brought in $7,000 from its booth located beside the Washington Street swim center. "Those moneys made up 37.5 percent of our annual fundraising budget," says Lipman. "They literally paid for the rental of the water the kids swim in. No other fundraiser we do all year brings in the kind of profits we raise in six days of selling fireworks."
Michael Sparks, a primary fundraiser for the Petaluma Valley Little League, estimates that fireworks sales make up between 5 and 10 percent of its fundraising budget. Last year the club brought in $3,500. "That's a significant amount of income," says Sparks. "The loss of that money would be pretty devastating."
Affirms Christy Earles, whose family participates in the Pop Warner Football program: "We will not be able to operate if we can't sell fireworks. No ifs, ands, or buts. We depend on it."
Though the fireworks sales will go on as scheduled this year--with selected councilmembers invited to a May safety orientation organized by Santa Rosa-based fireworks distributor American Promotional Events--it is not unlikely that the conflict will arise again next year. What happens if the ban is ultimately passed by the City Council? "Costs will go up exponentially," shrugs Lipman. "All the clubs will have to stop giving scholarships to kids who can't afford to participate. We'll have fewer kids in the water and more kids on the street with nothing to do. Unless the city wants to give us the facilities for free," he adds.
Maguire agrees that the city has an obligation to support its non-profits. "A moral obligation, if not a technical one," he says. "Maybe we can help by closing off a downtown street one day for a giant bake sale."
A bake sale? Wouldn't it take an awful lot of brownies to raise $150,000? "The point is, it's not an undoable thing," he replies. "Other fundraising means are available. Look, the Casa Grande Anglers' Club held a cake auction last year and sold those things for up to $100 each! At any rate, we still have to figure."
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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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