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Local Editorials

Editorial: Newton should opt out of fireworks legislation

This Independence Day could be a lot louder in Newton, and many other Iowa communities, after new developments from the 2017 Iowa Legislative Session.

Senate File 489, which is expected to be signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Terry Branstad, would legalize the sale and use of consumer-grade fireworks in Iowa. Sales would only be allowed from June 1 or June 13 through July 8 and Dec. 10 through Jan. 3. Even given a short window for access, fireworks could pose problems for the tightly packed houses and yards of Newton neighborhoods.

Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik has already laid a framework for the city council to opt out of the law. Wellik presented fireworks options the city leaders May 1, and he put the issue in simple terms:

“Lighting an object on fire, letting it fly away uncontrollably and explode, is not safe. It is dangerous,” Wellik said. “It is difficult for us in the public safety realm to look at it and say it is ‘OK.’”

We agree with the fire chief’s assessment.

The close proximity of houses within Newton’s city limits increases the risks of unintentional fires, and 2-inch shells — which can be found in consumer-grade fireworks — can easily cause an explosive injury to the user or spectators if not set up properly.

According to Wellik, the state of Iowa has recorded 383 emergency room visits for fireworks injuries in the last seven years. In Missouri — a state with legalized fireworks — 2,650 ER visits were recorded fireworks injuries in the first six years of legalization.

One of the most unsettling unintended consequences of allowing more fireworks into our neighborhoods is the likely reaction of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Allowing more fireworks to detonate could mentally put veterans back on the battlefield, during holiday seasons, which could already cause anxiety not knowing when an unexpected loud pop might echo through the bedroom window.

Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency has provided estimates and outcomes for the bill. The agency said there is no available estimate on the number of misdemeanor tickets that will be issued for violations related to fireworks increased retail availability, although the agency did state correctional impact will be “negligible.”

As part of the law, the Iowa Legislature has directed revenues from seller license fees and wholesaler registration to go into the Consumer Fireworks Fee Fund under the purview of the state fire marshal. The fees, which range from $100 to $1,000, will go to pay for the estimated $141,000 in costs expected to enforce the rules of the fireworks law.

The Newton Police and Fire Departments already have a full workload and should not be expected to handle violations which are preventable.

It is a time of falling tax revenues for state and city coffers, so taxing the sale of consumer-grade fireworks might, to some lawmakers and city councils, seem like an appealing way to bridge some of the shortfall. But just how much money will actually come from the sale?

Iowa LSA estimates total fireworks sales under SF 489 around $17.8 million in 2017. That would bring an estimated sales tax revenue of $1.1 million, with $178,000 deposited into the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) program and $155,000 going to the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST). By 2021, estimated sales tax revenue from fireworks is $1.94 million.

But that money would only pay for a fraction of the state’s $7.269 billion 2018 budget framework approved by the legislature in April. To a small city, any amount of new tax revenue is welcome, and the bill does not allow cities to opt out of allowing local businesses to sell fireworks. But what they can control is the use of these devises. Keeping fireworks to the professionals will allow Newtonians to have fun and safe Fourth of July and New Year holidays.

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