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Fireworks sales are booming in Pennsylvania thanks to a change in the law

This is the first Fourth of July where Pennsylvania residents can buy explosive fireworks. But not everyone is happy about the law change.

Dylan Stamm, stocks fireworks on the shelves at the Phantom Fireworks in Upland, PA . This is an historic Fourth of July for Pennsylvania: The first where residents can freely purchase and detonate explosive fireworks.
Dylan Stamm, stocks fireworks on the shelves at the Phantom Fireworks in Upland, PA . This is an historic Fourth of July for Pennsylvania: The first where residents can freely purchase and detonate explosive fireworks.Read more / File Photograph

Four years ago, Michael Ott's ex-girlfriend introduced him to the fireworks-tent business, a seasonal market that lasts a whirlwind 10 days leading up to the Fourth of July. He hasn't looked back since.

"I make more in a week and a half here than I do in six months at my two other jobs," Ott, 27, said last week as he stocked the tables at his tent, set up this year in the parking lot of the Wynnewood Shopping Center. "Aside from this, I work 365 days. I never take a vacation. This, these 10 days? This is my vacation."

This year, Ott's tent bears a large banner announcing: "We Have the Big Stuff!" He and his bosses at Keystone Fireworks, the Lancaster outfit that has hired him as a seasonal contractor, are counting on sales being at record highs: For the first time in decades, Pennsylvania residents are able to purchase consumer-grade explosive fireworks, such as mortars, rockets, and firecrackers with under 50 mg of explosive material.

The change came in October thanks to an amendment to the state's tax code, one that also added a hefty 12 percent excise tax on the newly legal fireworks. Legislators slipped the change in as part of this fiscal year's budget package, justifying the fireworks tax by allotting its funds to local police and fire departments.

But while consumers are celebrating their new state-given right to graduate from sparklers and fountains, the producers and sellers of the fireworks are having a markedly different reaction.

Industry giants are bemoaning the tax, calling it unconstitutional and banding together to file a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court. They say the measure will damper the sales they expected from the new legalization.

Meanwhile, some municipalities around Philadelphia are cracking down, maintaining local ordinances that make it difficult for residents in suburban areas to shoot off the fireworks they're now legally able to purchase.

"For commodities like fireworks that are bought and used once a year, a total of 18 percent in sales tax is prohibitive," said Dan Peart, director of government affairs for Phantom Fireworks, which operates a store in Upland. "I think we would've liked to say we've seen an effect in sales by now, but it's not apparent. And people certainly aren't shy in telling us the price is too high."

Previously, state residents could set foot into Phantom and other big-name companies' showrooms to shop for nonexplosive novelties. But the explosive fireworks that the stores stocked were roped off, available only to out-of-state buyers.

It's why billboards for fireworks superstores scream at motorists near Pennsylvania's borders with other states, and why the stores themselves are strategically situated near those borders.

Data from the state Department of Finance show that there was a huge spike in the sales tax collected on fireworks in October 2017 compared with the same month a year before: 824 percent. Since then, it's closed the gap, with a 75 percent bump this May over May 2017.

Another major issue, Peart argues, is that temporary facilities, such as the tents,  are now able to apply for permits to sell the explosive fireworks, which he fears will draw business away from the brick-and-mortar stores.

"No one wants to sound like sour grapes here, but when we build our facilities, we don't get to skate on anything," he said. "So when you see these things in the tent, we're looking around saying, 'We can't compete with this.' They have no cost of entering the business and in investing in the industry."

Kevin Schaub, owner of Keystone Fireworks, also has concerns about safety in the tents, especially when comparing seasonal employees with the ones who work year-round in the dedicated stores.

"It's a matter of taking whoever's available," he said. "And that's part of my argument, because that's not the best way to sell explosives."

"Before, you were selling sparklers and ground fountains, things that don't go into the air," he added. "Now, suddenly you're selling things that explode, because of the change."

Walter Remmert, the director of the state Department of Agriculture's bureau of ride and measurement standards, said those fears are overblown.

Out of the 301 permits issued to temporary vendors since the change in the law, "the overwhelming majority" belong to major fireworks companies, including Phantom and TNT.

"To say they're above board is probably an understatement," said Remmert, whose department has been licensing permanent fireworks stores since 2006. "They have a lot of investment in this industry."

Remmert said that the temporary structures are only allowed to operate between June 15 and July 8, and that a majority of them keep it to a much shorter period to hold costs down.

Every applicant is also required to get proper permits at the municipal level, according to Remmert. And he's confident that his department can handle the new workload should any concerns arise.

"We're extremely familiar with regulatory oversight and responding to consumer complaints," he said. "The public is very diligent and timely in calling when there's a concern, and we respond quickly."

In some of the region's tents, business does seem to be, well, booming.

"I think it's safe to say that the skies around here will be pretty well lit on the Fourth," Karen Kinsolving said as she worked in a fireworks tent on 69th Street in Upper Darby.

In her five years of seasonal sales, Kinsolving said, customers would constantly ask about mortars, rockets and Roman candles. Now she no longer has to turn them away.

That interest has municipal leaders and first responders preparing for this historic fireworks season. But there's an odd clash of regulations.

The new state law says that aerial fireworks such as mortars and rockets can't be launched within 150 feet of occupied dwellings, and that anyone who wishes to launch them must have explicit permission of  the property owner.  It's a moot point in the city, which outlaws the use of everything but sparklers.

Just northeast of the city, in Bensalem and Lower Southampton Townships, municipal leaders say they haven't changed the requirement for residents to get a permit from the local fire department to launch fireworks. That process also requires a visit to the intended site of the display by the fire marshal, according to Joe McFadden, the vice chairman of Lower Southampton's board of supervisors and a volunteer fire captain.

"It would be tough for anyone to get one in the first place, based on density between buildings here," he said, adding that as of last week, no one has applied for a permit.

Without one, the use of the legally purchased fireworks becomes illegal, and comes with a fine anywhere between $100 to $1,000.

"We've all heard stories of people blowing hands off. Now we're talking about mortars being shot into the air," he said. "I'm worried about people who are going to hurt themselves or others because they don't know how to do this kind of stuff."

Those concerns are shared by Capt. Joe Daly of the Springfield Police Department in Delaware County.

"This fireworks law change isn't the dumbest thing I ever heard," he said. "But it's probably number two."

Daly pointed out that his municipality, along with several that border it in the county, require the same permit applications as their counterparts in Bucks.

"I might be an alarmist. I may be way out on a limb here, but I think we'll see an uptick in fires and injuries," he said. "We all know from experience that if you don't control this stuff, you're going to wind up with someone injured. And that's frustrating, especially when it's so preventable."