Two years ago, Pennsylvania passed a law loosening its fireworks regulations.
The change allowed consumer-grade fireworks, like those allowed in neighboring states, to be sold and set off in the commonwealth.
The result, Lancaster city officials say, has been disastrous — so much so that they’re looking to join other cities in seeking to have the law repealed.
Fire Chief Scott Little and police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser are on board. Police are being inundated by fireworks-related calls on and around July 4, Berkihiser said.
“I think every community’s up in arms about it,” Berkihiser said.
The novelties have caused serious fires elsewhere in Pennsylvania, and it’s only due to luck that Lancaster, with its dense neighborhoods, wooden porches and rubber roofs, has been spared, Mayor Danene Sorace said.
The state law sets a minimum age of 18 and prohibits fireworks use near buildings, and Lancaster passed and publicized an ordinance last year that effectively barred lighting fireworks anywhere in the city. But enforcement has proved difficult to impossible.
So City Council plans to send Lancaster County’s state legislators a letter urging repeal. Council members are currently reviewing a draft.
Support sought statewide
The idea comes from Reading, where a fireworks-related July 4 fire left two families homeless this year. Another damaged an elementary school.
Reading reached out to its fellow small cities after seeking support for repeal from legislators in Berks County and getting disappointing responses, City Clerk Linda Kelleher said.
The lawmakers told Reading they’d support giving more authority to local government to regulate fireworks, but “clearly that approach isn’t working,” Kelleher said.
Millions in revenue at stake
William Weimar is vice president of Phantom Fireworks, the largest U.S. fireworks distributor. It has an outlet in Shrewsbury, York County, one of several it operated in the state prior to the change in the law.
Phantom is firmly committed to safety, he said, and it has no objection to reasonable restrictions on fireworks use, including minimum age requirements and limits on location and time of day.
But Phantom expanded its Pennsylvania presence in good faith after the law was changed, opening four more stores, creating jobs and investing millions of dollars. If the law were repealed, “we would lose a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
The state would, too, he said, thanks to the high 12% tax the 2017 fireworks law imposes on the devices, over and above Pennsylvania’s standard sales tax.
In the last fiscal year, the fireworks tax brought in nearly $8 million, according to the Department of Revenue.
While up to $2 million of that is reserved to help fire and emergency services departments, Berkihiser said that hasn’t changed the prevailing opinion among police and firefighters that the law is “sacrificing public safety for tax dollars.”
Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney is president of the state Career Fire Chiefs Association.
“We want the law repealed,” he said, but he doesn’t think repeal has enough political support.
In lieu of it, the association supports amendments proposed by state Rep. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican. They would increase fines for improper fireworks use, set time-of-day limits and require sellers to post or provide written notice to their customers of the state’s rules.