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Anaheim could scrap a Fourth of July fireworks program run by the Honda Center for a new sales program where just the city’s eight high schools and eight nonprofits picked in a lottery can participate.

Mayor Tom Tait billed the change as more equitable citywide, but it drew criticism from Anaheim Hills residents.

At their meeting last Tuesday, the City Council voted 4-3 to give Tait’s proposal initial approval, with councilmembers Kris Murray, Lucille Kring and Stephen Faessel voting against it. The council still needs to vote on the details of the program in April.

All fireworks were banned from Anaheim for nearly three decades until Measure E, which repealed the ban on the sale and use of fireworks within city limits, was passed by voters in a June 2014 special election. 

Under the most recent program, fireworks sales were run by Anaheim Arena Management, the company managing the Honda Center. It sold fireworks from two stands, one at the Honda Center and another in West Anaheim, and proceeds would go toward nonprofits based in Anaheim that register to participate.

Anaheim Arena Management kept 60 percent of the proceeds. Ten percent of the total profits are split among all nonprofits that registered with the program. Customers could also bring a flyer from the nonprofit of their choice to ensure 30 percent of their purchase would go to that organization.

Anaheim Arena Management also donated $40,000 toward a community Fourth of July fireworks show in Anaheim Hills, where residents are prohibited from using their own fireworks because of the high fire hazard in the area.

It’s illegal to sell or set off fireworks that explode, like bottle rockets or cherry bombs. Legal fireworks in California include sparklers and others that create intense heat.

Tait argued the program disproportionately benefited Anaheim Hills residents by ensuring $40,000 goes to the Anaheim Hills fireworks show but “leaves crumbs” for the high schools.

In 2016 the program sold $346,452 worth of fireworks, $53,633 of which went to 99 participating nonprofits, according to a staff report. About $17,000 went to schools in the Anaheim Union High School District, with top earning nonprofits and public school groups like St. Boniface Church netting $2,952 and Katella High Football $2,434.

Instead, Tait’s program will allow 16 nonprofits to run their own fireworks stands. The 16 would include the city’s eight high schools within city limits and eight other organizations selected by a city lottery. Rather than consolidating the sales with one vendor, the individual nonprofits would be required to take care of the logistics of buying, storing and selling fireworks.

He claimed profits under his program will increase and schools will be able to make up to $30,000, because of the use of volunteer labor, the increased number of booths citywide, and a smaller number of participating nonprofits.

Councilwoman Kris Murray disagreed, arguing Tait’s plan shuts out a majority of the city’s nonprofits and will jeopardize the Fourth of July fireworks show, which has been a staple in Anaheim Hills for more than two decades. 

“What really frustrates me is we are not six different districts but one city, and this is a program that everyone has access to – all our nonprofits, schools, churches have access to this program with no up-front cost,” Murray said.

She argued the current system allows nonprofits to take advantage of “economies of scale” and consolidate the costs of running a fireworks stand into one big operation.

The March 7 meeting drew several Anaheim Hills residents who were concerned about whether Tait’s plan would affect the fireworks show.

“Since Anaheim Hills is subject to fire hazards the display is especially important to the families in our area,” said Gloria Hale.

Trevor O’Neil, chairman of the Anaheim Hills Community Council that organizes the Fourth of July parade and festivities, said Tait’s plan increases the amount of risk nonprofits must take on, while the previous fireworks program guaranteed nonprofits a certain amount of money, however small.

“Under this plan, it is possible a nonprofit actually loses if their share of the profit isn’t enough to cover these expenses,” O’Neil said.

Tait said that Anaheim Hills residents have been able to raise money to hold the event in the past, before the fireworks program began two years ago. The city has also contributed funding for the event since 1995, which in recent years has been up to $10,000.

Kring said the program has not always been able to fund itself, with one family paying for the entire fireworks show one year.

“As the economy got worse, our parades were very lean and mean, it was almost embarrassing,” Kring said.

She said that even if schools in Anaheim Hills had a fireworks stand, residents in the area would not be able to light them.

Councilman Steve Faessel said the program with the Honda Center is not perfect, but he is concerned about the large number of organizations who will not be able to participate.

“That leaves approximately 80 organizations that aren’t going to get any funding at all,” Faessel said. “I’m uncomfortable for giving all the benefit to 16 at the expense of the other 80.”

Tensions between Tait and Murray flared when she challenged whether Tait’s program would generate as much money for nonprofits as he claimed.

“These are huge money makers for high schools. The numbers you’re talking about are a fraction of what the high schools would make” in other cities, Tait said.

“The numbers don’t back that up, sir,” Murray responded.

“We tried your way twice and it failed miserably – and that’s not just me, it’s the Orange County Register,” Tait replied, referring to an Orange County Register editorial calling the previous fireworks program a “dud.”

Murray noted more than 200 residents sent emails and letters to the City Council about the fireworks show.

“I’ve never had this many individual constituents saying, ‘this is important, please don’t throw it out,’” Murray said.

Murray’s campaign Facebook page called on residents to contact their councilmembers to “protect” the Fourth of July celebration.

“It looks very political, and I’m just going to say it. This is political,” Tait said.

“I’m encouraging residents to reach out to elected officials and they have every right to do so,” Murray responded, with Tait gaveling her down.

Some of the controversy also stems from the involvement of the Chamber of Commerce, whose president Todd Ament was on the Charter Review Commission that proposed Measure E. 

In 2014, the Chamber of Commerce received $40,000 to administer and organize the fireworks show. Now that money goes to the Anaheim Hills Community Council, which hires the Chamber to help staff and organize the event, O’Neil said.

Councilman Jose Moreno, who originally requested changes be made to the fireworks sales program, said he wasn’t trying to get rid of the fireworks show but “democratize” a program he characterized as benefiting the Chamber of Commerce and Anaheim Hills, leaving other residents with the short end of the stick.

“The chair of the Chamber of Commerce was chair of the charter commission that pushed our voters to vote for fireworks and exempted the Hills, rightfully so, but then found a way to get $40,000 to the Hills,” Moreno said.

A more detailed proposal of the new fireworks program will need to come before the City Council for approval again before it is final.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that $93,633 from fireworks sales went to 99 participating nonprofits. $53,633 went toward the nonprofits, while $40,000 went toward the Anaheim Hills fireworks show. 

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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