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Houston bolsters fire department with fireworks tax take

Zaz Hollander
Shoppers look for fireworks at the Gorilla Fireworks stand in Houston, Tuesday, December 31, 2013.
Zaz Hollander
Neil Munroe, right, helps a friend from Anchorage pick out fireworks Tuesday morning at the Gorilla Fireworks stand along the Parks Highway. Munroe, from British Columbia, was impressed with Houston's use of fireworks tax money to fund the fire department. December 31, 2013.
Zaz Hollander

HOUSTON -- A pair of gentleman in a friendly New Year's Eve competition with a Finger Lake neighbor shelled out $400 for an array of "Excalibur" artillery shells, "Crazy Exciting on Steroids" multi-shot aerials plus a few old-fashioned sparklers at Gorilla Fireworks on Tuesday morning.

Ah, pyrotechnic enthusiasts.

Just doing their part to help out the local fire department.

Taxes from fireworks sales at Houston's Parks Highway stands cover 10 percent to 15 percent of the city fire department's budget, officials say

Along with a 2 percent sales tax, fireworks buyers are charged an additional 2 percent under a policy approved by voters in 2010 and recently made permanent by Houston's city council.

A city ordinance requires that fireworks tax revenues be used to "promote increased public safety." The city no longer staffs a police department, so right now all the fireworks tax take goes to the fire department, which is also funded in part by a small amount of property tax.

"The rest comes out of our general fund," city treasurer Carolyn Grabowski said this week. "So this reduces the amount that comes out of our general fund."

Neil Munroe, a native of British Columbia visiting the Gorilla stand with a friend from Anchorage, just loved the purity of Houston's fireworks levy.

"It's the most logical tax I've ever heard of," Munroe said as he and Michael Malvick picked out $139 worth of goodies -- "controlled fire," as Malvick called it.

QUID PRO QUO?

Talkeetna resident Joey McBrayer joked he was at Gorilla buying fireworks Tuesday just to help the department. Really, he and his 2-year-old daughter were stocking up for a neighborhood party.

"I wonder if fires started by fireworks, if it kind of evens out," McBrayer mused.

In the last five years, Houston fire has responded to one call related to fireworks, and that one involved a "suspicious" situation where someone pointed a Roman candle into the woods and a firefighter spotted smoke, according to Capt. Christian Hartley.

"People are used to being around fireworks so they have respect for the danger," Hartley said.

Houston firefighters spend time at the fireworks stands around holidays to educate the public about local laws, he said. Generally, emergency responders get "really very few" fireworks-related calls on holidays like New Year's or Fourth of July, said Clint Vardeman, the Mat-Su Borough's deputy emergency services director.

"You get an occasional fire and you get an occasional Black Cat goes off in somebody's hand but you don't get as many as you think you would," Vardeman said.

Local urban legend lists fireworks as the suspected -- though never proven -- cause of the most destructive fire in Alaska history: the June 1996 Miller's Reach fire.

Fireworks calls or not, the local department stays busy. Houston fire and EMS crews in 2012 responded to 324 emergencies ranging from carbon monoxide alarms to medical emergencies, house fires to vehicle fires, according to Houston Fire Chief Tom Hood's annual report for that year. There was a November wildfire with wind chill at 40 below, a snowmachiner rescue in the Hatcher Pass backcountry and a dog trapped on melting ice in the middle of Bear Paw Lake.

SHHH ...

The exact amount the city takes in from taxes on fireworks remains a closely guarded secret. Grabowski wouldn't say how much Houston earns from the tax.

The city doesn't even publish the number in its budget.

Disclosing the figure "would reveal the revenue of a particular individual," she said. "Generally speaking, we never reveal the amount of sales tax a particular business pays."

That individual would be Robert Hall, the 55-year-old businessman, volunteer firefighter and attorney who owns the Gorilla Fireworks stand at Mile 52.7 Parks Highway.

Basically, Hall presides over Houston's fireworks empire. His wife and a partner own the majority of TNT Fireworks across the highway. His wife owns the majority of Lil Gorilla. Hall manages all the stands, the only places in Southcentral where fireworks are sold.

He can't remember a customer ever complaining about the tax.

"As a matter of fact, the city asked if we raised the tax from 2 percent to 4, will that affect your sales?" Hall said Tuesday morning. "I said no."

He said he could hunt down the taxes he paid on fireworks but recommended an easier way to get to the number: get the fire department's budget.

The department's budget this year was $317,000, Grabowski said. Do some rough math and fireworks taxes accounted for at least $31,700.

'HOPE IT'S A QUIET NIGHT'

Houston looks at fireworks with less trepidation than the rest of Southcentral. Lighting fireworks is legal year-round on private property within city limits.

Fireworks are illegal elsewhere in the Mat-Su Borough except from 6 p.m. New Year's Eve until 1 a.m. New Year's Day, with safety and location restrictions. Within Palmer, the legal window begins at 9 p.m.

Borough emergency officials on Tuesday were keeping a wary eye on the combination of fireworks and gusty winds already buffeting the Valley by afternoon.

The Alaska State Troopers expected a busy Tuesday night and Wednesday morning regardless of the fireworks involved, spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. Troopers in the Mat-Su can enforce the borough fireworks ordinance but generally respond only to calls involving someone shooting fireworks at a house or potentially causing a fire, Ipsen said.

Fireworks are illegal in Anchorage.

Asked what percent of Houston's fireworks end up used illegally within the municipality, Anchorage police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said in an email that "we do not have any substantial method for knowing how many fireworks set off in Anchorage came from Houston stands."

Police in Anchorage respond to fireworks calls if an officer is in the area and not addressing a higher priority call such as a domestic disturbance with a weapon, Castro said. Drunken driving patrols were expected to be the evening's main mission.

"We hope it's a quiet night and that we can start the new year off on a positive note," she said.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com