Fireworks company under fire

Documents reveal town display shorted for years; several other towns investigating company

Thursday, July 17, 2014
(Published in print: Friday, July 18, 2014)

GREENFIELD — Mayor William Martin says the town will not accept an agreement with the New Hampshire company that has been providing Greenfield’s Fourth of July fireworks display for the past 20 years until an investigation into whether the town was shorted on the actual number of shells fired for at least the past four years has been completed.

There are indications that fireworks show attendees in the town may have only seen about half the fireworks that were paid for.

Atlas PyroVision Productions Inc. Chief Executive Officer Stephen Pelkey said Wednesday that the company acknowledges there was a difference in what was promised the town this year and what it got, and added that Atlas is prepared to make amends by offering the town an 80 percent discount on this year’s display.

Documents provided to the mayor and The Recorder appear to show that between 2011 and 2014, Greenfield was shorted an average of 600 to 650 shells — the difference between the number of shells it paid for and the number fired during each show.

For instance, this year Atlas contracted with the town to shoot 1,360 shells during the fireworks display on July 5 at Beacon Field, but actually only shot 672.

Likewise, in 2013, the town paid for 1,140 shells and received 648, while in 2012, it appears the town paid for 2,185 and received 643, according to the documents.

And in 2011, the documents show, the town paid for 2,185 shells and show attendees only saw less than a third of that — 636.

Greenfield is not the only town investigating Atlas at this point.

For 25 years, Atlas has also provided the Fourth of July celebration in South Hadley, which is currently doing an investigation of its own after noticing it may have been short-changed this year.

“The number of the shells in the proposal was different than the number of shells shot. We did not get what we were told we would get,” charged Recreation Director Andrew Rogers this week.

Rogers said he and District 2 Fire Chief David Keefe noticed the difference when counting the shells before the town’s fireworks display, also held on July 5.

“I got the proposal and went back to the show,” said Rogers. “We sat down with the Fire Department and shooter and went over what we should have had and what was there.”

As was the case in Greenfield, Rogers said the South Hadley show was a good one and people were happy with it — but believes it wasn’t what was promised by Atlas.

Rogers said he thinks this is the first year there has been a discrepancy in South Hadley.

“Until this, I can’t say anything negative about them,” said Rogers.

Discount offered

If Greenfield were to accept Atlas’ proposal of an 80 percent discount this year, it would mean the display would cost the town $2,200 instead of $11,500.

All money for the fireworks display is raised through donations each year, so it does not cost Greenfield taxpayers anything but police and fire hours.

“We’ve sent Atlas a formal letter from the town’s attorney,” said Martin. “There will be no compromise or agreement until we know what happened.”

Martin said the town is not accusing Atlas of impropriety, but because of what it learned after reviewing its contract with Atlas, he needs to investigate before making any decisions about what it will do next.

Martin said the town’s lawyer, Gordon Quinn of Sullivan, Hayes and Quinn law firm in Springfield, is still reviewing all of the documentation the town has provided.

“We’re going to wait to hear from our lawyer,” said Martin.

“If we find out this is true, we are going to want a rebate on our contracts,” said Martin. “We also want the proper authorities to investigate this fully. We’ve learned these business practices might have been happening in other towns that contracted with Atlas.”

It appears the “proper authorities” might include the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is responsible for regulating fireworks companies such as Atlas.

The Recorder has learned that South Kingstown, R.I., has also confirmed it is investigating the possibility that it was short-changed by Atlas, at least this year. South Kingston Director of Leisure Services Theresa Murphy said the town will be more diligent in its request for proposals for future fireworks displays.

“Historically, the town has been very pleased with the service provided by Atlas,” said Murphy. “We do reserve the right to inventory the shells when they arrive. We did not do that this year.”

On the firing line

Precinct 3 Town Councilor Brickett Allis, who is head of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said in a Facebook post that the news puts him in a difficult position, because he is not only a town legislator, but was an Atlas employee at the Greenfield show for the past two years.

“I bleed ‘Green Wave,’” he said. “I was born and grew up here, went to school here and have been a councilor for the past 15 years.” Allis has served on numerous town committees and boards and has volunteered many hours to the community, he said.

“I truly hope for the sake of everyone involved that (people) understand that I was not involved in any illegal activities that may have taken place,” said Allis.

Come show time, fireworks shooters like Allis are in the dark in terms of what a town has ordered and paid for, according to several experienced shooters.

Longtime Atlas employee Robert Perry of Gill has worked on the Greenfield Fourth of July display for 28 years. “It’s disappointing that it is the way (Atlas) is conducting business,” said Perry. “The shooter doesn’t know what the sponsor, Greenfield, receives for a quote.”

Perry said he is not thrilled about the accusations.

“From a professional standpoint, I’m the one the public sees,” he said. It makes me feel upset. It’s a breach of trust.”

According to Perry and other shooters, they only receive the inventory list and are responsible for making sure they have all the shells on that list.

On the day of the show, shooters receive what is a called a bill of lading — a list of explosives on the truck, and that list has to be 100 percent accurate or the company is in violation of the state law.

“Our job is to make sure that if you have 14 cartons, you have 14 cartons,” said Perry. “We do this in case there is an accident, so we can tell the first responders what they are facing.”

Shooters, however, never know what the sponsor receives for a proposal from Atlas, he said.

Perry said he thinks that if it’s true, shorting towns may be a recent business practice of Atlas. “I think it’s a more recent indication of the way they choose to do business,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s been going on all that time.”

Perry said that type of business practice may have more to do with getting the competitive advantage.

He said firework display companies purchase shells and supplies from the same companies in China and Japan and the price is the same for all companies. The real difference is a company’s overhead, he said.

“All the companies are from China,” said Russ Benjamin of Northampton, who worked for Atlas for 12 years. “If you’re giving a proposal, it’s all very close. What wins clients over is the personality and personal contact with shooters and show producers.”

Benjamin maintained the electronic system and packed shells for the shows until he quit last January to work for the company’s competitor, Pyrotechnico. He now works as show producer doing sales and soliciting towns.

In his new position, Benjamin said, it’s been clear that “Atlas is blowing everyone out of the water with their proposals by 500 to 600 shells. We do our proposals and get it slapped back in our faces. People say ‘(Atlas) is giving us a better deal,’ but it’s so under what they promise.

“This is their business plan throughout the northeast,” charged Benjamin. “In the past four to five years, it’s getting worse and worse.”

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