Although crowd size estimates varied from 10,000 to 150,000, all agreed that the number of people attending the 14th Annual Memorial Day Summer Salute on Friday, May 22, must have been larger than before because traffic was jammed from West Shore Road to the Northern State Parkway - by 5:30 p.m. The number of crime incidents also increased and included an armed robbery and an intoxicated woman's much-publicized attack on a horse and cops. With a cost to taxpayers of over $24,000, some people were asking if the pre-Memorial Day celebration, with fireworks and entertainment, was worth the price. They posed the question: Has it gotten too big and too popular to be desirable or safe in its present location?
Opening ceremony of 14th Annual Memorial Day Summer Salute, Friday, May 22, sponsored by the Americana and Wheatley Plaza with the Town of North Hempstead. (Courtesy: Americana at Manhasset)
Although most people raved about the beautiful weather, jumping bands, camaraderie and impressive fireworks - the Port Washington Police Department raised the question of whether the fireworks celebration had attracted too many non-residents, and if it had become too big to be controllable and therefore enjoyable. Even though the Americana (Americana at Manhasset) and Wheatley Plaza shopping centers financed over 90 percent of the public party, taxpayers in Port Washington and the Town of North Hempstead (TNH) had to pay the overtime and equipment costs to supply the area with proper police and emergency protection. Concerns about the event was the topic of discussion for most of the new business portion of the Police Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, May 27. The commissioners decided to discuss the question in detail again, after conducting a thorough study of the celebration's crowd size, demographics, traffic patterns, crime incidents, etc. for the past three to five years.
The specific police activities that spurred the discussion were 12 arrests, including four for possession and/or use of marijuana, one arrest for a drunken fight and resisting an officer, one arrest for armed robbery, and the much-publicized Nassau County Police arrest of an intoxicated 19-year-old Manorhaven woman for punching a police horse and then injuring two plain-clothes officers. The 19-year-old fighter was also from Port. The armed robbery defendant was a 17-year-old male from Roslyn, and the marijuana arrests were all of males between the ages of 16 and 19, from Mineola, New Hyde Park and Uniondale. The first two marijuana arrests were in the early afternoon, but the rest were after 5 p.m. There were also over 20 people who required medical treatment. A rumored gang war never occurred, however.
At the police commissioners meeting, Chief William Kilfoil referred to the event as "a public safety gamble" and talked of asking the town supervisor to cancel the event next year. Several days after the meeting, Kilfoil said, "I think it is a nice evening that has become too large for the peninsula to handle. It would be safer for everyone concerned if an alternate site could be found." Chief Kilfoil estimated that the crowd grew to 60,000 this year; however, at the meeting, numbers as high as 100,000 were discussed. Kilfoil reported that the department spends "thousands of dollars" in overtime costs, flares and vehicle maintenance. He said that he usually puts 40 of Port's 58 officers on the Hempstead Harbor beat for the event, and that includes 30 officers who wouldn't normally work then and who therefore have to be paid overtime. If the event is called off and rescheduled the next day, which it once was, he still has to pay those 30 officers overtime for being on call Friday. Then he has to pay overtime again when the event finally takes place. All the department's bicycles and motor vehicles are used that night; so there are extra fuel and maintenance costs also. Officers need the vehicles for power and speed for some emergency situations, but officers on bikes or on foot can often be more responsive to problems in a large crowd .
The Police Department isn't just concerned about protecting the crowds at the beach, however. Because so many resources have to be diverted there, Police Commissioner Roy Smitheimer said he is concerned that the skeletal crew left inland might not be sufficient to handle a major emergency back in town. Smitheimer also criticized parents for letting their children attend the event by themselves or with peers, instead of treating it as a family outing. He said some youths treat that Friday like senior cut day, arriving early and staying until the end of the concert, often getting drunk and smoking marijuana in between.
Commissioner Chairman James Duncan said he wouldn't comment officially until after examining the results of the study. He expressed concern, however, that Port residents are paying over $15,000 a day for Port police to cover an event that has a 60 percent attendance by non-Port Washington residents. He said that the district can't get the Town of North Hempstead to help foot the police protection bill. He said his main concern is safety. If a large number of youths get involved in a fight, he's not sure the PWPD could handle the problem, and the overly congested roads would make it difficult to get help; Beacon Hill Road and West Shore Road are the only means of ingress and egress.
Commissioner Bob Persons was out of town and not available for comment.
Police Chief James Interdonati was less negative but said the police department should make any decision regarding future support of the event. He said the police are responsible for traffic control and safety. The Port Washington Fire Department (PWFD) doesn't suffer a shortage of personnel or vehicles because all the other fire departments in the TNH help out. He said more first aid was administered this year but because the police did such a good job of keeping the roads clear, there was no problem moving ambulances.
Detective Lieutenant Kevin Caslin from the Public Information Office of the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) estimated the crowd to be over 100,000 but hesitated to specify a number because no one took an official count. He said that the NCPD supplied 16 police officers, three supervisors, and one administration officer, including five mounted officers and their supervisor. They also sent a bomb squad. Contrary to reports from other sources, the NCPD did not send a marine or air unit. It's possible, however, that a NCPD boat or helicopter just happened to be in the area. Caslin said that the police coverage that night didn't cost the taxpayers an extra penny because all the personnel and equipment was just reassigned from other locations; no one was called in to serve overtime. Det. Lt. Caslin said that over the past 14 years there had been no significant crime incidents.
Although the Town of North Hempstead's Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Gerard Olsen, couldn't be reached for comment, a representative from his office expressed only enthusiasm for the annual event which is primarily financed by the corporate sponsors. She said that the crowd must have been larger this year because the parking lots filled up 30 minutes earlier. She said the entertainment was wonderful. The Long Island Swing Ensemble and the Capris performed, and Bay Fireworks did the fireworks display for a second time. The celebration was broadcast on WKJY radio.
Town Supervisor May Newburger expressed nothing but almost-gushing enthusiasm for the event. She said she would be loath to give up such a joyous celebration and reiterated that 90 percent of the cost is covered by Frank Castagna (owner of the Americana and Wheatley Plaza). She raved about it being a Norman Rockwell family affair with a traditional small-town feeling where everyone has a good time despite the large crowd, something people look forward to from year to year. Ms. Newburger said the Town met with the Port Washington police and fire departments beforehand to coordinate plans for the event. She said the town provided extra personnel this year because of the rumored gang war threat. Then she quipped, "Maybe the gang members did come but were having such a good time that they decided not to fight."
Ms. Newburger's office said that the town spends approximately $9,000 on the celebration, including $2,200 for employee overtime. The town pays for some of the band and some of the sound system costs, plus the portapotties. The corporate sponsors pay for everything else. The town estimates that over 10,000 people attended this year, but perhaps this estimate is just for the Bar Beach area. The town's estimate is considerably smaller than the 60,000, 100,000 and 150,000 cited above.
Deirdre Major, who has been in charge of the event for the Americana ever since it sponsored the second fireworks display 13 years ago (The Town sponsored it alone the first year and then asked the Americana to help the next year), would not disclose how much her company spends on the event, but did say that the Americana pays the entire cost of the fireworks display and the family entertainers. The cost of the bands and the sound system is shared with the town, and the town supplies the stage mobiles and related equipment. The town and individual municipalities, as mentioned above, supply all the personnel, emergency equipment, traffic and crime control.
Ms. Major emphasized that the event was a joint venture with the town and that the town administration and personnel have been wonderful to work with. She praised the Port Washington Police, especially for their ability to move the millions of cars so efficiently and (relatively) quickly.
She said the Americana's reason for co-sponsoring the event, in addition to the patriotic-name tie-in, is just to give back to the community. The Americana is particularly proud to support a family event that also honors all the veterans and heroes who have served our country. She's proud to help provide the emotional thrill she herself felt watching the helicopters fly overhead at the opening of the ceremony. Ms. Major said she had no reason to believe the Americana wouldn't help sponsor the event again next year.
One person who asked not to be named said the peninsula location could be viewed as an advantage because it didn't block the island. Also, people who didn't want to cope with the Port Washington traffic could view the fireworks from Sea Cliff. This person thought that the "world class event" was worth the minor discomfort.