April 5, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 14

July 4 fireworks display in limbo

The future of the annual, Fourth of July fireworks display was in question this week, following a 4-1 vote by the Haines Borough Assembly March 27 against taking on insurance liability for the display.

Member Debra Schnabel voted to provide the coverage. Joanne Waterman was absent.

Haines Chamber of Commerce president Ned Rozbicki recently told the assembly the business group is no longer interested in providing insurance for the event, as the group’s policy is limited to $1 million.

The borough, which holds $10 million in coverage and pays for nearly all the fireworks, is the appropriate insurer, said Rozbicki, who works as a local insurance broker.

“The borough has always chosen to fund (the display). If they choose not to fund it, or choose not to fund the liability, it isn’t going to happen,” Rozbicki said in an interview this week. He described the borough’s increased risk as “a small blip on the screen compared to the liability they face every day.”

Rozbicki said the chamber, in comparison, was “underinsured” for a community fireworks show. “If there was a catastrophe, it would put the Chamber out of business and leave the public on the hook… It’s in the public’s best interest that the fireworks be adequately insured.”

The borough’s insurance agent advised the municipality against providing the coverage. The agent told the borough that fireworks coverage “probably” wouldn’t increase the cost of the borough’s policy, but would increase its exposure.

The agent instead suggested the borough increase its contribution to the display to offset the Chamber’s expense for insuring it.

However, Rozbicki said he wasn’t interested in such an arrangement, as the Chamber’s policy wouldn’t adequately cover losses in the event of deaths and could jeopardize the organization.

At the March 27 meeting, assembly members seemed agreeable to taking on the liability until Rozbicki said the borough would be writing a check for the fireworks this year directly to the pyrotechnic firm, not to the Chamber. “If the Chamber still writes the check, there’s a liability chain for the Chamber,” Rozbicki said.

Mayor Stephanie Scott said the motion wasn’t addressing purchasing fireworks or whether the borough would be hiring people. She also pointed to the agent’s advice that the coverage “probably” wouldn’t increase the cost of the borough’s policy. “If you agree to this, there are hidden costs lurking everywhere.”

Borough financial officer Jila Stuart said increased risk equated to potential cost for the borough. “(Rozbicki) said it’s cheaper for the community if we take it under our policy. I don’t believe that’s true. It’s cheaper this year if we don’t have an accident.”

Borough officials also pointed out that in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, non-profits insure fireworks displays. Rozbicki said those arrangements are likely uninformed, and that it’s a “ridiculous” risk for the chamber to insure an event that the borough funds.

Mayor Scott also questioned whether coverage would set a precedent that would lead other non-profits to seek borough insurance for their events. “This is not a simple request.”

Member Jerry Lapp, who initially expressed willingness to provide coverage, said the issue was confusing and it appeared the borough was being asked to provide more than insurance.

“If the chamber doesn’t want it, I’d rather see the fire department or the pyrotechnics company take it on and provide their own insurance,” Lapp said.

Schnabel said she realized that covering fireworks would entail risk. “There’s something about stepping out and doing it because somebody has to do it and I think we’re the ones who should do it.”

Member Norm Smith said the government’s role in the fireworks has increased over the years, and was at one time primarily funded by donations from businesses. “What if (the (pyrotechnician) blows himself up? Who’s liable? I think that’s the question?”

Smith characterized the display as “blowing up tax dollars.”

Rozbicki said he didn’t have a figure broken out for how much fireworks coverage added to the cost of the Chamber’s insurance policy, but said it was the group’s top risk and increased the cost of the policy.