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Economy putting the fizzle in Fourth fireworks

In Medford, tens of thousands of people turned out last year for the Fourth of July fireworks. This year, the sky may remain dark.

This year, municipalities across the region are weighing whether to have July 4th fireworks or use the money to preserve jobs and services. (John Costello / File)
This year, municipalities across the region are weighing whether to have July 4th fireworks or use the money to preserve jobs and services. (John Costello / File)Read more

In Medford, tens of thousands of people turned out last year for the Fourth of July fireworks. This year, the sky may remain dark.

In Moorestown, Washington Township, and Gloucester City, parades have been scrapped for lack of funding. Pennsylvania towns such as East Goshen and Lansdowne have trimmed the budget for their celebrations and will rely on private money.

Across the region, hard economic realities have left many officials with a tough choice: Hold full-scale Independence Day celebrations - or save the money and preserve jobs and services.

They've chosen the latter, and many have turned to the public for help.

"Officials are looking at what they have to do to save money and jobs," said Rick Schuettler, deputy executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities.

"Special events are on the chopping block," he said. "Some of our members won't be having them because they've had to prioritize."

It's "unfortunate, because everybody loves July Fourth fireworks," said Matt Weng, staff counsel for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

"With the economic downturn and loss of state aid, towns are being forced to cut back on almost everything that's not necessary," he said. "In the past, a town would turn to private donations, but because the economy has affected everyone, those donations aren't there anymore."

In Philadelphia, the 11-day Welcome America festival boasts a range of events, including a parade, several concerts, and fireworks at Penn's Landing and on the Parkway.

City Hall will cover the cost of municipal services, but the high-profile, corporate-sponsored celebration - which will begin June 25 - has sought economies. Savings include shortening the parade route and trimming stage construction costs.

Communities including Ridley Park, Media, and Newtown Square will stick with tradition. Most have parades; some have fireworks.

Those who have thronged Freedom Park for Medford's pyrotechnic display may have to go elsewhere, however.

Officials are looking at the budget to see whether Medford can afford the event, and will make an announcement this week, acting Township Manager Steve Addezio said Friday.

The fireworks display has grown in popularity, said Beth Richmond-Portocalis, Medford's director of recreation. But not spending the $50,000 to $60,000 for production and overtime labor could save "two or three employees in public works, and services that residents value - all for a one-night event for three or four hours."

The Township Council and administration have "to look at the big picture," Richmond-Portocalis said. If the fireworks are canceled, "hopefully, it will only be one year."

In Moorestown, where a private committee runs the event, the July Fourth parade and festival have been canceled for a second year.

The town paid 75 percent of the overtime pay for 10 police officers in the past, but it couldn't do it last year or this year because of the budget impact, said Jef Harding, a local organizer.

It "would have cost quite a few thousand dollars, and that was one of the clinchers for canceling the parade," Harding said.

Newtown Borough had a privately funded parade and fireworks last year, but the events won't come off this year unless organizers can find the money in the next few weeks, officials said.

Gloucester City officials canceled the town's parade on Saturday, July 3, to save $15,000. "Due to the recent cuts in state aid, the City of Gloucester finds itself in an economic crisis," officials said in a news release.

Mayor William James said he couldn't justify the expense when "we're talking about layoffs and furloughs for city employees and trying to keep taxes down."

The city will have fireworks July 3 thanks to a $15,000 donation from a local business, Holt Logistics Corp., he said. "It's a tough time to be an elected official," he added, "but we'll survive."

Washington Township officials called off their parade to save about $50,000. But the town website says a "group of residents is working diligently" to preserve the fireworks.

Donations are being accepted at the municipal building in Turnersville. If enough is raised by June 22, the show will go off July 3.

In East Goshen, the fireworks display was moved to June 26 - Community Day - to avoid the premium charged to stage them on the holiday. Much of the expense will be paid by an area golf club and about 10 other businesses and organizations.

"The cost is almost covered but not quite. We're still collecting money," said Frank Vattilano, the township recreation director. "We didn't have fireworks for economic reasons last year. This year, we'll have them, but we'll have a DJ instead of a band."

The Lansdowne Union Athletic Association has held fund-raisers and is selling $5 tickets to help pay for its 106th Independence Day parade and fireworks July 3. The group will spend $25,800, down from $28,000 last year.

"Some fireworks are far more costly," the association's Helen Bowes said. "We had to switch some of the big bombs for smaller bombs."

In Cherry Hill, township officials joined with area businesses to sponsor a fireworks program, a DJ, and vendors for the Fourth of July at Cherry Hill High School West.

"This is revenue-neutral," township spokesman Dan Keashen said. "We're not spending one dime of the taxpayers' money."

In Willingboro, where tens of thousands have attended a parade and fireworks in past years, residents will have to settle for a small festival - and a parade, if the cash is raised.

"We're already looking ahead to next year," said Pat Lindsay-Harvey, president of the private Celebrate Willingboro Committee, which plans the event, "when we hope to have a festival, parade, and fireworks."