Government

Banned by many Iowa cities, fireworks still bring gripes

Paucity of citations illustrates difficulty with enforcement

Managers of some fireworks tents said this week there was some confusion over which cities banned or limited firework usage. Many local governments banned the use going into this year, and several also limited where they could be sold. Marion, which is where this tent was photographed Wednesday, has not restricted sales beyond what the state law calls for. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Managers of some fireworks tents said this week there was some confusion over which cities banned or limited firework usage. Many local governments banned the use going into this year, and several also limited where they could be sold. Marion, which is where this tent was photographed Wednesday, has not restricted sales beyond what the state law calls for. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite a ban, illegal fireworks displays flew around Cedar Rapids on July Fourth to the frustration of some, even if 2018 was toned down since last year.

Todd Cohenour, 54, who lives near Noelridge Park in northeast Cedar Rapids, called police as fireworks persisted in his neighborhood until at least 11:20 p.m. Wednesday. It had been pretty steady for the past week — but that was better than the lengthier barrage in 2017, the first year fireworks became legal in Iowa, he said.

“It was like Beirut,” Cohenour said. “I looked out the window and they were shooting them off from their driveway. It freaks the dog out. I had to sleep in the spare bedroom with the dog.”

While some say fireworks overall have been less of a nuisance this year, the week leading up to Fourth of July reminded many there’s a new era in Iowa where fireworks are readily accessible and law enforcement is hard-pressed to enforce bans in communities where elected officials don’t want them, like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

Cedar Rapids police logged 476 fireworks complaints in the first four days of July, including 216 on Wednesday, and 703 total since the beginning of June. That’s significantly more than the 486 in 2016, before the Iowa Legislature legalized fireworks, but well below the 948 complaints fielded last year when Cedar Rapids went along with the most lax rules on firework allowed under state law.

Angry residents complained and Cedar Rapids now imposes a ban.

Only eight citations have been written for illegal fireworks discharge in city limits so far in 2018, underscoring the difficulty of catching people in the act.

“The police department will continue to evaluate the response to fireworks in our community,” said Greg Buelow, public safety spokesman for the city. “There were still a number of individuals that violated the law and were disrespectful to their neighbors.”

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Iowa City issued twice as many citations as Cedar Rapids. Sgt. Paul Batcheller said the city had 14 fireworks calls and made 16 citations on the Fourth alone.

Coralville, however, had much fewer with only two citations and 19 calls on the holiday, Chief Shane Kron said. North Liberty Police issued no citations but had 16 calls about fireworks use, said Nick Bergus, the city’s communications director. Both cities banned consumer fireworks displays.

Cedar Rapids outlawed use and restricted sales to industrial zones only heading into 2018. The changes didn’t solve every problem but appeared to help, said City Council member Susie Weinacht.

“Policy decisions last year had a positive impact in 2018,” she said. “The problem is with enforcement. You can’t ban possession or sales. At the local level, we’ve done what we can to mitigate what the Legislature has passed.”

Weinacht, who chairs the city’s public safety and youth services committee, said she anticipates a discussion about fireworks at an upcoming meeting. She said an awareness campaign may be the next step, and noted she expects conversations with Marion, which did not restrict where fireworks could be sold but allowed only limited use.

Cohenour took his frustration out on police and the city.

He reached out to the police non-emergency line, which he said rolled over to voice mail and he never received a call back. In his view, not enough is being done to enforce rules and catch those shooting fireworks illegally. He hoped for at least a cruiser to drive through the neighborhood with lights flashing.

“I wish the city would do something to crack down on it,” Cohenour said. “They put an ordinance in but nothing is happening.”

Police staffed extra officers, but the calls for service were prioritized in order of seriousness, “so there were points during the evening hours, in particular on July 3 and July 4, that officers were backlogged on calls,” Buelow said.

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While state law does not allow cities to ban possession and all sales, Buelow said, offending properties reported to police will be entered into the SAFE-CR program, which allows authorities to assess fees to nuisance properties.

City Council member Dale Todd, who’s son has epilepsy, also was frustrated by residents flouting the law.

“It’s obvious that many disregarded the ordinance nor did we allocate adequate resources to enforce it,” Todd said. “As a council we will review the data and I would suggest you will see significant improvements next year. Let’s be clear. These are not the firecrackers we had when we were young. These are explosives, used by untrained and often intoxicated people at all hours of the day.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Madison Arnold of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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