Fireworks plan sparks debate

Divided council passes ordinance on first reading

By Thomas Wilson

   A divided Elizabethton City Council voted 4-2 to pass on first reading a controversial ordinance permitting the seasonal sale and use of fireworks inside city limits at Thursday's council meeting.
   Councilwoman Nancy Alsup made the motion to adopt a version of the ordinance permitting fireworks retailers to sell during the Fourth of July and New Year's Day holidays. The vote came after several citizens spoke out for and against the ordinance including a family who had made fireworks their family business for years.
   "We've been selling fireworks in all 20 years and we've never had an accident," said Nancy Daugherty, whose family operates several fireworks retail establishments in western Carter County. "We do everything that can be done to make them safe."
   The city's annexation of property in western Carter County included property where the Daugherty family has sold fireworks for a number of years.
   With three different ordinances regulating fireworks on the table, council accepted the ordinance recommended by Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse and Fire Marshal Barry Carrier -- two staunch opponents of the entire fireworks issue. Shouse said he could not support the ordinance given the potential public safety hazards.
   "I can't sleep at night," Shouse told the Council. "I'm sorry, but I can't do it."
   The ordinance passed by the council permits fireworks sales from buses but prohibits any patrons from entering the bus. Daugherty said the family was allowed to sell fireworks last year during the July Fourth holiday after they were annexed into the city.
   Carrier, who is adamantly opposed to permitting patrons inside school buses, pointed to the narrow space of exiting if fireworks discharged inside the vehicle.
   He said after last year's annexation of their property, he inspected the Daugherty's bus only three days before the July Fourth holiday. He told council members that fire officials allowed the family to sell through the holiday season after reviewing the large amount of fireworks stock already on hand.
   "I allowed them to finish out the last three days," Carrier said.
   Several citizens voiced their opposition to the ordinance, citing safety and property dangers posed by the explosives.
   "It is a danger to people and their property," Carl Peters of East H Street told the council. "No matter how you right this, some little kid is going to get a hold of the thing."
   Peters warned the city that liability for the sale of fireworks could be retroactive to the city if a serious injury or death occurred due to fireworks discharge allowed under the ordinance. Mayor Sam LaPorte stated that he was unaware of any lawsuit filed against Carter County government due to a fireworks injury in all the years the county had sold fireworks. Fireworks vendors have sold fireworks inside Carter County for decades where sales are legal.
   Peters' daughter, Susan Peters of K Street, advised the council to raise the ordinance's legal age limit to buy fireworks from 14 to 16 years old. "I strongly urge you not to loosen the rules on this ordinance," she said.
   The ordinance also had its advocates.
   John Clark of Burgie Street asked the council to approve the ordinance saying fireworks were the "American" way to celebrate the upcoming Independence Day holiday. He also said that contrary to public belief, police did enforce citations against illegal fireworks inside the city.
   "I got a ticket last year on July 3 for possession of fireworks," he said.
   The ordinance passed allows seasonal retailers to sell and the public to discharge fireworks from June 20 to July 5, and Dec. 10 through Jan. 2 every year. Fireworks could not be discharged between 12:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. -- a time frame taking into account the New Year's Day holiday.
   The ordinance passed by council prohibits the discharge of fireworks within 600 feet of a school, church or other inhabited structure and a 50-foot boundary between a fireworks retailer's business and the nearest building.
   LaPorte, Mayor Pro Tem Sam Shipley, and Councilman Richard Sammons voted yes along with Alsup. Councilmen Pat "Red" Bowers and the city's ex-fire chief, Bill Carter, voted against the ordinance. Councilwoman Janie Smith McKinney was absent.
   Shouse and Carrier have publicly voiced their opposition to the entire ordinance. If the council was intent on making fireworks legal, Shouse recommended adopting an ordinance that most closely adhered to state guidelines on fireworks sells.
   "This council cannot adopt any ordinance that is more lenient than state fireworks laws," Shouse said.
   Despite the brouhaha, the ordinance itself could prove moot for upcoming Fourth of July holiday sales. The council must give 10 days public notice to hold a called meeting to approve the ordinance on second and final reading. The ordinance would not take affect for another 10 days, making July 3 the earliest day vendors could legally sell inside city limits. The ordinance must be approved on second reading before being legal.
   The council also voted 6-0 on second reading to approve the 2003-2004 city budget. The city's proposed $11.4 million General Fund budget was cut 11 percent this year after city administration factored in a percentage loss in state-shared revenues for the upcoming fiscal year. City Manager Charles Stahl said the city faced an estimated 7 percent reduction in state revenues, according to the state's last budget figures. The city's 2002-2003 General Fund budget was cut 13 percent last year.
   The budget includes the issuance of $1 million in bonds to fund city capital projects. The capital budget includes up to $500,000 to demolish the Carter County Memorial Hospital building on West G Street.