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Wednesday, June 18,2014

Bombs bursting in air

The constant mini-explosions that crack the night leave Loretta Stanaway with a troubling choice

by Todd A. Heywood

“I’m torn. Do I pick up the phone and call the police to report what might be gunshots, only to find out it’s fireworks, or do I not?” she asks.

And in her neighborhood, located in the South Lansing area of Jolly, Pennsylvania and Cedar, that’s a difficult decision. She says the neighborhood has been rocked with gun shots over the last year. The Fourth of July holiday has only complicated the situation.

Stanaway is not alone in this struggle.

Ray Kurtis lives in downtown Lansing. He says for a month before and after the Fourth of July there is cacophony of fireworks explosions through the night. “I used to [call the police],” says Kurtis. “They would eventually drive by, things would quiet down for maybe 30 minutes, and then go back to what it was before.”

City officials say enforcement of the city’s ordinance is tough. It requires a police officer to witness fireworks being used during the forbidden hours of midnight and 8 a.m. or to get a citizen to sign a sworn affidavit accusing a neighbor of violating the law. The law only authorizes the use of fireworks on the day before, the day of and the day after nationally recognized holidays. Those found guilty can face a fine of up to $500 and possibly face 90 days in jail.

Getting police officers into neighborhoods for quality of life issues is tough in these tight budget times, which raises the question: The new fireworks law created a new revenue stream for the state of Michigan; so where is that money going?

Right off the top, $1 million a year in funds raised under the fireworks law goes into firefighter training. Anything above and beyond that is absorbed by the state’s Licensing and Regulatory Affairs program. None of the money raised under a state fee of 6 percent imposed on the total sales volume of fireworks in a year is diverted to local governments tasked with enforcing the law.

In 2012, LARA collected $1,341,189. For 2013, the program got $1,821,997 and the 2014 estimate is put at about $1.9 million, says Shelly Edgerton, deputy director of LARA.

The training funds are broken out in $10,000 direct grants to the counties to parcel out in training as they see fit. The remaining money is put out in special grants for various training programs the fire deparment might not otherwise be able to afford.

But state Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, points out that the distribution actually violates a funding formula created by the Legislature with the new law. The legislation used the population and geographic size of a community as the basis for payments. It was complicated to administer. Schor says he is working with legislators to address the funding issues.

Lansing does have one other option to find funding for enforcement. The state offers a program where local municipalities and the state share the licensing fees paid by businesses in order to legally sell fireworks in the state. Right now, a business wishing to sell fireworks has to pay $600 for temporary location license such as those for roadside tents and $1,000 for a permanent location. All of that money goes to LARA.

Under the program, staff from a municipality is trained by the state to conduct the licensing inspections and enforcement of the licensing rules. The municipality gets 70 percent of the licensing fee, the state gets 30 percent of the fee. That money is not encumbered and could be used for enforcement of the local ordinances.

Lansing does not participate in this licensing program.

“Mayor Bernero has said publicly in the past that the state should share those resources with local communities like Lansing,” says Randy Hannan, Bernero’s chief of staff. “We encourage our legislative delegation to work with the appropriate state agencies to clarify and enforce the legislative intent that the funds should be shared with local com munities.”

Hannan says the city’s budget is not specific enough to identify how much the city spent on fireworks enforcement last year. But the city did issue 18 citations for violating the law and “many more warnings” last year. The city used police officers and Fire Department officials to enforce the law.

Strict enforcement is virtually impossible without many more police officers on duty throughout the city. The state is collecting significant new tax dollars from wholesalers and retailers, but NOT passing those dollars on to local governments who are responsible for keeping the peace,” Bernero told residents in a Facebook thread on June 6.

And while last year the combined resources of the fire department and police department were tasked with enforcement, Bernero says he is considering bringing in the “orange trucks,” or public service department workers.

“We do not have a detailed operational plan for those additional personnel at this time,” Hannan says of Bernero’s idea.

So the fireworks keep popping, Stanaway keeps wondering whether to call the police and waste valuable police resources on a goose chase for a gun shots fired, or to ignore the noises; and Kurtis is coming nearer the two week timeframe around the Fourth when he becomes “irritated” by the sounds of bombs bursting in air.

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