Fiscal Fireworks

When we suggested fireworks displays are community-building events that shouldn't be eliminated, some of our readers lit up like the Fourth of July.
April 22, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

About a month ago, we asked you to tell us what you thought about some comments by consultant and former city manager Jerry Newfarmer. He had argued in Public Management that community activities, such as fireworks displays, build a "sense of place" and reinforce community ties. "The money that we budget for community groups to put on these events (and for local staff overtime) to make them possible is just as important a public service as are the more traditional city and county services delivered directly by the staff."

Given that philosophy, we wondered whether Chicago and other cities had made a mistake by axing long-standing community events -- like Chicago's Grant Park fireworks.

Your message to us came back loud and clear: This was no mistake.

"Ludicrous," wrote one irate reader. "Posing this as something that reasonable people can disagree on is a disservice to readers."

Others were more measured, but made it clear that even treasured entertainment activities are low down on the priority list in relentlessly bad budget times. "While I agree in the value of community togetherness promoted by fireworks, when prioritizing limited budget needs, Maslow's theory still applies in that basic security needs for core public services must be satisfied before higher level needs can be addressed," wrote Shirley Beaulieu, chief financial officer of the Texas Education Agency.

John Dougherty, city administrator of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, said that he had pushed to eliminate holiday lights in his city, because people needed to see that the budget situation was really serious. "I understand what [Jerry Newfarmer] is saying about community events, such as fireworks, bringing a community together. However, he seems to have lost sight of today's reality that half the people want government to solve all their problems and the other half doesn't want to pay for the first half. Something has to give and [the question of] fireworks or a person's livelihood or public safety seems a no-brainer to me."

There were a few people who offered a compromise position, describing ways to have a community event that would get people together but without costly frills. "It's all a matter of perspective and public perception when it comes to community celebrations," wrote Jay A. Gsell, county manager of Genesee County, New York. "Put those displays aside in these very trying times but refocus on the event/fair/festival/celebration/etc. as the real reason for the community to gather and enjoy each other's company, and don't get hung up on the end of the event. It's all about people connecting and reconnecting with each other, talking and laughing, and spending family time with their neighbors when it's light and the fireflies are still sleeping."

We sent these and other responses to Jerry Newfarmer. We anticipated that he might be argumentative. Instead, he was thoroughly open to the general point of view expressed by many. Here's what he wrote to us:

"Most of the comments agreed that in this Great Recession, when we're actually reducing survival-related services such as public safety, we shouldn't be wasting precious public dollars on non-essential frills like fireworks.

"If that's the stark choice -- and in today's environment it often is -- I agree with the conclusion. But the challenge of leadership is to apply good judgment and balance the choices. One respondent talked about how their city considered a small fee for a traditionally free community event, to defray the costs. Another told how, 'once our plight was made public in the newspaper, the paper and water company pledged and then our hospital and three other businesses stepped up to finance the most spectacular Zambelli fireworks we had seen.' The spirit of community ought to be a two-way street, and it often is.

"Several wrote to say thanks for imagining that municipal funding for community events should be viewed as an actual public service -- and that that perspective helped their Council. Good enough.

"But as another commented, 'There are fireworks just about every day in city hall as we try to get through the recession without raising taxes.' A sense of humor doesn't make these choices any easier, but it can keep them in perspective."