This Fourth is a dud as cash-strapped cities cut fireworks shows

It's that time of year again, and I can't wait! The explosions, the smoke, the sparkly flames. I'm speaking, of course, about the annual season when your local TV news channel dutifully trots out the clips of fire safety marshals blowing the hands off mannequins to convince us to leave those M-80s well enough alone. More than the smell of the barbecue firing up, more than John Philip Sousa, nothing else tells me Independence Day is finally here again.

This year, they had better air those unintentionally entertaining clips of destruction a few more times, because in many towns, that's all the fireworks they're gonna get.

Because of budget crunches, cities across the country are canceling their fireworks shows.
When even a modest fireworks show could cost upward of $20,000, towns are deciding that it might be wiser to fill potholes than to send money up in smoke. Countless places have 86'ed their 4th celebrations: In Arizona alone, Tucson, Mesa, and Glendale have declared the party over. New Jersey's oldest display, an annual tradition since 1894, is going dark, too. Lenexa and Shawnee, Missouri, have ended the show despite the fact the towns usually split the costs between them. Big festivals are also getting killed off in budget clampdowns. The San Francisco Blues Festival, a staple since 1973, looks like it will be a permanent casualty of the tough times, and East Boston will lose its 15-year-old, three-day Italian street festival.

"I'd rather keep people working rather than see some fireworks for 15 or 20 minutes in the sky," said Councilman Rick E. Dalla Valle of Torrington, Connecticut, who objected to the $40,000 price tag for his town's patriotic jamboree. (His principled stand was for naught. His town decided to put them on anyway, despite the fact it didn't quite know where the money was going to come from.)

It's not bad news everywhere. Some large cities are dealing with leaner times by simply mounting more modest displays. And donors have come to the rescue in places such as Fort Myers, Florida (thanks, Sand Bill Realty) and Marion, Massachusetts (thanks, businessman Lee Vulgaris -- sorry, but you're not allowed to remain anonymous). Tucson also got its fireworks back (thanks Pasqua Yaqui and the Desert Diamond Casino), but it was a tight squeeze, and most cash-poor cities haven't been so lucky.

Many other towns are trying the same tactic, inundating local boosters with requests. Personally, considering so many people are down on their luck, I'd rather donate money for something of more tangible or permanent value. Some bystanders rightfully took Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to task in April for spending $80,000 on a contract for a pyrotechnical display when nearly one in ten of the state's residents are jobless.

A few places, such as Redington Shores, Florida, are lighting the fuse again this year because they put the show on the back burner last year and budgeted more carefully in anticipation of this July. But far more are calling off 2009 in the hopes of being back in the skies in 2010.

The unintended consequences of the cancellations is that more people will be compelled to put on their own shows, which will no doubt result in a few more injuries and a lot more frazzled firemen -- in the end, costing some communities more money anyway. I know of one beach community in Florida, Anna Maria Island, that bans fireworks. The locals have grown fond of the annual tradition of heading to the water to watch the cops scurry all over the beach in a fruitless effort to stop people from shooting their own fireworks over the Gulf of Mexico.

It puts an ironic, police-state spin on the old Independence Day celebration. Considering the anti-oppression, Revolutionary roots of the holiday, an uptick in representational responsibility -- and the resulting illegal explosions -- seems only apt.

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