Merced County measure allowing fireworks sales closer to OK

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 27, 2013 

— Pyrotechnics companies stand to make thousands from local fireworks vendors, as an ordinance legalizing "safe and sane" fireworks in unincorporated Merced County is on track for the Board of Supervisors' approval.

Although it's a move that also would raise money for local non-profit groups, some county officials said the change could compromise public safety.

"I represent a very rural area with a lot of brush," said District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. "I go home every day and get to see how many fires started along the river."

It's not "a good time to do this" because of an extremely dry season, Kelsey added.

The ordinance, supported by the Merced County Fire Department, allows for the use and sale of fireworks in communities like Hilmar, Planada and Winton from June 28 to July 4. The item moved forward in a 4-1 vote Tuesday — and may be approved just in time for Fourth of July.

Fireworks are legal within the city limit, but under the new ordinance, they can be sold in unincorporated industrial and commercial zones. They cannot be sold at residential or agricultural sites, unless it's a school, church or public property.

There's no limit on the number of stands, officials said.

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo said nonprofit groups have approached him the last four years asking for permission to sell fireworks to raise money. In November, Pedrozo ran into a TNT Fireworks executive, Johna Wilson, at a social gathering, and it sparked a discussion about the ordinance.

"I'm in full support of it because I've had numerous organizations ask me for it," Pedrozo said. "Personally, I think it's very important because it gives them another opportunity to raise money for their organizations."

Ben Esquivel, president of Tri-City Youth Football, said selling fireworks could potentially help his organization, but the group will meet Tuesday night to discuss whether they want to run a stand.

"We're definitely interested, but I have to see who would be there to work the booth," Esquivel said. "If you run it properly, you can make money, but if you're having trouble getting people there, it's going to be tough."

Each stand can make $6,000 to $8,000, based on past experience in similar counties, according to a TNT Fireworks representative. The groups pay the following fees: $400 for a license, $300 to $400 for insurance, a $50 state fire marshal fee and $300 to rent the stand.

In the end, the nonprofit groups make about 40 cents on the dollar, with a general 50-50 split between their earnings and what they pay the fireworks company.

Ryne Conder, regional manager with Phantom Fireworks, said his company charges similar fees, except it costs $275 to rent a stand and insurance costs are about 3 percent of the group's total fireworks purchase.

"There is a lot of rural land in Merced County, so we're only looking to put stands in the populated areas," Conder said. "We will look at locations from a business point of view for the nonprofit and for our company."

Rick Martinez, resource teacher and football coach at Le Grand High School, said selling fireworks is a great way to generate funds amid budget cuts and a down economy.

"There's no overhead for us other than time and volunteers, so it can be a great fund-raiser for any nonprofit," Martinez said. "I don't see anything negative at this point because the fireworks are still being purchased and used."

Martinez, who has lived in Le Grand his entire life, said people are still using fireworks despite it being illegal.

Cal Fire Division Chief Mark Lawson said legalizing the fireworks would free up his agency to concentrate on illegal fireworks. "If it were legalized for use and sale, now we can focus specifically on the dangerous or illegal fireworks," he said.

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