Monday, May 21, 2018
News Roundup

Safety Harbor caught in Fourth of July funding flap

SAFETY HARBOR — To keep afloat its annual fireworks amid budget cuts, the city of Safety Harbor this year solicited a private sponsor.

But a bit of controversy erupted when the city inadvertently credited the sponsor for more than just fireworks on the event itinerary printed with customer utility bills.

People complained after City Commissioner Richard Blake, a pyrotechnics fan whose business donated $5,000 toward the fireworks show, also got kudos for bankrolling the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 238's sixth annual Fourth of July parade.

"I think (the city was) being nice. They said 'Join us for the parade,' which would have been absolutely fine except it said right below that 'presented by Blake Real Estate.' So that got a few people unhappy," said legion chaplain and parade founder/chairwoman Ruth Burgess.

But just days before the big event, the legion was taking it in stride.

"It still was publicity for the parade," Burgess said, "so maybe it'll bring out even more people."

She said the city immediately apologized for the mistake, which officials said grew out of an innocent attempt to spread some cheer about the upcoming holiday.

City funding for the fireworks display had dwindled over the last decade or so from $30,000 to $15,000. Commissioners nixed all funding for this year's show and decided to seek private sponsors instead, as Safety Harbor has long done for other events such as Third Friday and the Wine Festival.

In addition to the Blake business sponsorship, this year's 20-minute display of pyrotechnics over Old Tampa Bay, was partially funded by $10,000 in leftover special events money donated annually by the Largo-based Great Bay Distributors, the city said.

For the parade, the city waived the rental fee for the legion to use Main Street, then threw in a free ad on city fliers as well.

"The intent of the city was just to increase the exposure of the parade with the announcement of the fireworks," said Assistant City Manager Matt McLachlan.

He said the city immediately corrected the error on its website, and plans to properly credit the legion as the parade's sponsor on the next utility bill. And Burgess said Blake sent the legion an apology letter. She said Vice Mayor Cliff Merz is also expected to recognize the legion during post-parade closing remarks.

Still, the sponsorship flap rankled at least three residents who approached commissioners during the citizen input portion of their June 16 meeting to question the ethics of advertising an elected official's business on water bills or including ads at all.

One of them, Barbara Hollen-Hugg, noted that the legion "not only originated the parade in Safety Harbor, they sponsor it and continue it to this day and they got no mention whatsoever. . . . No matter how you spin this, I just don't think it's right."

Four years ago, Blake said his family made it a new tradition to spend Independence Day in Safety Harbor for "one of the best (fireworks) shows in the Tampa Bay area" rather than travel out of state.

He admitted being caught off guard by the issue.

"I think it was an unfortunate oversight on the placement of words. I'm certainly not trying to take credit for the parade. I hope they have a phenomenal parade," he said, encouraging the public to partake of both events.

"The whole day is a blast for sure."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow her on Twitter @KeyonnaSummers.

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