Spectators watch the fireworks during last year’s Fourth of July celebration on the Eastern Promenade, which drew an estimated 50,000 people. Portland taxpayers have spent over $100,000 on the event since 2015, and Mayor Ethan Strimling now says, it’s a “luxury we can’t afford.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Portland’s July Fourth celebration is in jeopardy. The nonprofit group behind the event is having trouble raising money, and a proposal to include fireworks in the city budget has been flagged by Mayor Ethan Strimling as a “luxury we can’t afford.”

The event already had lost the participation of the Portland Symphony Orchestra because of the fundraising struggle, and now the mayor has said dropping city funding for fireworks is a possible alternative to cutting other, higher-priority items such as a jobs program and school funding.

Strimling’s proposal, which has yet to be voted on, comes as the Portland Press Herald has learned that the city has quietly been covering funding shortfalls for the Stars and Stripes Spectacular for the past three years. Strimling was not aware of the practice and it’s not clear where in the city’s budget the money came from.

SLOW REPAYMENT FROM ORGANIZER

The annual Independence Day celebration draws more than 50,000 people to Portland’s Munjoy Hill and the Eastern Promenade and is billed as the largest event of its kind in northern New England. In recent years, live music by the PSO and other performers has accompanied the fireworks.

The pyrotechnics used to be funded by the city but were cut from the budget because of cost constraints in 2010, prompting business leaders to band together to save the celebration.

The event was self-sustaining for several years after that, but Portland taxpayers have spent over $100,000 since 2015 on the event, according to records requested by the Press Herald. Even as public money supported the event in recent years, it has continually been promoted as “entirely privately funded.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said the city always has had the intention of recouping those losses from July 4th Portland, the nonprofit organizer, which is why the event has been promoted as privately funded.

Jennings led those private Fourth of July fundraising efforts when he was president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws, but had to stop when he became city manager in 2015.

“We always spoke of it, when I was involved, as a public-private partnership,” Jennings said of his previous involvement with July 4th Portland. “Obviously, it was always the intention, at least when I was there, that it was going to be privately funded by the donors.”

Unless something changes, taxpayers likely would have to foot the bill to make the event a reality this year.

July 4th Portland announced in April that it would not be able to spend the $30,000 needed to hire the orchestra, because it was having trouble finding corporate sponsors. The celebration cost $130,000 in total last year.

The event’s main organizer, Tim Reardon of Quirk Chevrolet, said there isn’t much more the small group of volunteers can do to help raise money for the celebration – other than keep its website active so people can donate.

“If there was a way to put it together, I would,” Reardon said. “I’ve got blood, sweat and tears put into this.”

He added, “Unless someone comes through in the next few weeks to fund something, we’re out of it.”

PORTLAND PITCHES IN OVER $106,000

The Press Herald filed a public records request for expenses and revenues related to the Stars and Stripe Spectacular last summer after it was again promoted as a privately funded event.

The City Council annually approves the event, hires the company to put on the fireworks and takes on much of the up-front costs, including staff time. Then the nonprofit reimburses the city as it raises private donations – some years more than others.

According to city records, the event has cost Portland just over $106,000, including $42,000 last year alone. Last year’s figure would have been $22,500 more if the city had billed the nonprofit for city staff time, as it had in previous years.

That shortfall covered by the city was caused by a significant drop in corporate sponsorships – from about $105,000 in 2016 to $68,500 in 2017. Other revenues generated by VIP tables and vendors remained relatively flat, ranging from $21,000 to $26,000 a year.

“There was always a lag (over years, not just within one year) with how reimbursements came in as money was raised and it wasn’t until very recently that the foundation realized it was too hard to raise enough money to go forward again this year,” City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said in an email.

With private funding way down and little likelihood that the city will be reimbursed for previous years, the city this year has again listed the fireworks in the proposed municipal budget. It’s the first time the line item has appeared in the budget since 2010.

A MATTER OF FUNDING PRIORITIES

On Monday, Strimling suggested the elimination of the new $35,000 line item for fireworks so the city can fully fund the Portland Opportunity Crew, which offers work to panhandlers in hopes of getting them off the streets and into more stable work and living environments. He said he’s “not diametrically opposed” to paying for the fireworks, but not at the expense of things such as school programs.

“I felt like we were raising (private) money for the Portland Opportunity Crew, which is something people really support,” Strimling said. “If we’re raising money for that, and putting (public) money towards fireworks, then I think that’s backwards in terms of priority.”

The Opportunity Crew’s current funding was set to expire in June, Grondin said. However, the city has raised over $8,500 in private donations for the program. And it recently launched a new, tax-deductible program to allow businesses, groups or individuals to sponsor crews in exchange for advertising and promotion by the city. Grondin said city staff has heard from at least one business and another group about becoming sponsors.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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