KANKAKEE — To save taxpayers’ money, Kankakee replaced the annual Fourth of July fireworks with a laser show this year.
The community’s reaction: Not good.
In a Facebook Live video, Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong said Sunday she understood residents’ criticism of the laser display, which was done at Kankakee Community College. Many said they were unable to see the show from across the river.
Another complaint was that there wasn’t enough patriotic music during the show — something the mayor agreed with.
“We only entered a one-year deal. With that being said, it’s over,” Wells-Armstrong said.
The city’s three-year contract with its fireworks vendor ended after last year’s display, with the vendor saying its price would double to $20,000 for a display lasting less than 20 minutes, officials said.
The new amount, Wells-Armstrong said, took her and aldermen aback.
“All of us are mindful of taxpayer money,” she said.
So, the Kankakee City Council in May decided to try a laser show, which cost $12,000.
On Sunday afternoon, the mayor held a Facebook Live town hall, where she could answer residents’ questions in real time.
Wells-Armstrong said she wanted constructive feedback from residents about how to bring back the fireworks without doubling the city’s bill. She said she was focused on the concerns of residents inside city limits, whom she noted have paid the fireworks bill through their property taxes.
For years, the fireworks show has been conducted in conjunction with the Kankakee Valley Symphony Orchestra, which has put on a patriotic performance and collected parking fees from the thousands of people who have attended.
As part of its agreement with the city on the laser show, the orchestra did not charge for parking and took donations instead.
Two of the city’s 14 aldermen — Danita Grant Swanson, R-4, and Dave Crawford, R-3 — voted against the agreement changing to a laser show.
In her video, the mayor did not identify the two members by name, but said neither brought an alternative solution to the table.
“If you don’t support something, what is your solution? As leaders, that’s what we are charged to do, to have solutions,” Wells-Armstrong said. “No one presented another option.”
At a city Budget Committee meeting Monday, Crawford proposed the city form a committee to plan the fireworks display for next year. The mayor responded that she was working on the issue.
Grant Swanson didn’t return a message for comment.
Wells-Armstrong also responded to social media comments that alleged the problem with the original fireworks contract was the result of a clerical error or failure to sign it on time.
“There was no clerical error. We were on the last year of the contract,” the mayor said.
With so many people outside of the city concerned about the fireworks, Wells-Armstrong said she sent a message to Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler about the possibility of the county chipping in.
In an email, Wheeler said he told the mayor it was worthy of discussion, and that was the extent of the conversation.
“Anything I recommend to the County Board has to be something for the benefit of the entire county, so that is the lens I must look through,” Wheeler said.
As for other municipalities contributing, Wells-Armstrong said Bourbonnais already has its own display during the Friendship Festival in late June and Bradley, which is much smaller, doesn’t do fireworks because of the expense.
She said she would contribute $500 to the city’s fireworks display and challenged aldermen to do the same, either donating outright or selling sponsorships.
One idea that the mayor brought up was moving the fireworks to July 3, which she said other towns do because it is cheaper. A number of Facebook commenters told her they were fine with such an adjustment.
“I’m open to new ideas,” Wells-Armstrong said.
Carl Maronich, a symphony board member, said it was unfortunate many people didn’t know they needed to get closer to see the laser show than they did the fireworks display.
“People assumed you could see it from across the river, where they traditionally watched the fireworks from,” Maronich said. “It was an experimental year.”
Overall, he said, it was too early to determine whether the symphony made or lost money in the event.