New Paltz may cancel its fireworks celebration this year, citing a lack of volunteers

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Whether fireworks go off at the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New Paltz this year is entirely up to New Paltzians themselves. Organizing those festivities was a volunteer effort until only a few years ago, and town officials plan on returning to that tradition. All that’s needed is for locals to pick up the ball.

Kathy Preston, confidential secretary to the supervisor, inherited the job of making the fireworks show happen from her predecessor, Carol Connolly. “Carol was a member of the fireworks committee and had a lot of experience with that,” Preston said. Around the time Connolly was working for then-supervisor Susan Zimet, work on the committee waned and Connolly picked up the slack. For Preston, it’s about 40 or 50 hours of her time to arrange for musicians, sound system, venue and the fireworks display itself. When the fireworks ran during the tiny house festival in 2017, organizers of that event took care of much of that coordination. Last year, it was again all managed from Preston’s desk.

What had been the main task of committee members — and isn’t happening now — is fundraising for future years. An annual contribution of $3,000 from ShopRite is most of the outside money which comes in for an event that was donation-driven only a few years ago. On-site donations can amount to $150 and vendor fees $1,000.

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In addition to the fireworks display, which runs about $6,000, the event costs include renting the county fairgrounds ($750), bounce houses ($1,000), sound and lights ($1,175) and $2,725 for the day’s entertainment (which includes a master of ceremonies, two opening acts, a national anthem singer, the main band and some family entertainment). The fireworks themselves would cost twice that much for an event actually held on the fourth of July, Preston confirmed. The town’s fireworks escrow account holds $5,390 in it, which falls well short of a program similar to that held in recent years. However, as Preston explained, the character of that show probably needs to change regardless of who organizes it.

Rain in early July has been evolving into more intense storms, and the threat of cancellation now hangs like heavy clouds over the fireworks each year. The pyrotechnics can be delayed for $300, but if the rain date is also rained out, that’s another $1,500. If it’s called for weather after the fireworks have left the warehouse, there are no refunds. Asking musicians and vendors to commit to the scheduled date and rain date makes it harder to find either, because they only get paid for one or the other. If there is a cancellation, no vendor fees or on-site donations are collected, either.

Ulster County Fairgrounds may not be the best venue for fireworks, either. According to Preston, there’s a line of trees between audience members and the display, and each year they get a little taller. There are also lights in the parking area which take away from the display, but can’t be turned off for security reasons. It’s also never been as accessible to residents as the SUNY New Paltz campus, where the fireworks were once displayed.

Attendance — at least at the fairgrounds itself — has been dropping, Preston said. That also makes it less attractive to vendors, adding to the weather concerns. There are other locations from which the fireworks can be seen just as well, if not better. There is no admission charge for the event, and adding one could well drive attendance down still more.

There are other costs connected to the event because it’s run by an employee: Preston’s time, as well the setup and breakdown, which is taken care of by buildings and grounds staff members. Police officers handle traffic control the day of the fireworks. Even a significant contribution of volunteer time — the presence of rescue squad and fire department members — comes with associated costs.

Putting this cost onto taxpayers has become unsustainable, and Supervisor Neil Bettez has mentioned several times over the past year that it’s just not an expense which can be budgeted any longer. Beyond what’s in the escrow account, there won’t be anything paid from a town checkbook this year. With health care costs for employees (including some, such as police officers, who do not contribute anything toward insurance) and pension contributions eating up a greater share of municipal budgets every year, cuts to social service programs and services like transfer stations are now commonplace. Transferring responsibility for fireworks back onto community members at large was decided in that context.

How to get involved

An ad describing what’s needed might read something like this: “Wanted: a band of five to ten stalwart New Paltz community members possessing deep community ties, organizational panache, an abiding love for building community and a sense of patriotic responsibility to organize a fireworks display in recognition of Independence Day. The most successful candidates will have the temperament to work toward a common goal, a willingness to ask shamelessly for money to achieve that goal and the ability to wrangle many different kinds of people to achieve that goal. Having an ear for music, an understanding of community sensibilities and a fondness for explosions would also serve well. Those interested should send a letter of interest to assistant@townofnewpaltz.org.”

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