Revelers enjoy their beer during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Delray Beach. The city wants to ban alcohol from next year’s parade. Local businesses want to limit events such as the parade that closes Atlantic Avenue to traffic. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Watch Delray Beach St. Patrick's Day Parade video from International Fire Service
By Tim Pallesen
Just as firefighters take control of Delray Beach’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the city for unrelated reasons might shut down the parade.
City commissioners are under pressure from business owners to reduce festivals that close downtown streets. City staff has recommended that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade be the first to go.
“It’s the one we hear the most complaints about,” Assistant City Manager Bob Barzinski said. “It’s a tough event for police to manage.”
An estimated 100,000 spectators watched the March 16 parade, prompting the city to suggest banning alcohol if the parade is allowed next year.
“The alcohol needs to stop,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said at a May 14 workshop where Barzinski recommended that the parade be eliminated.
Commissioners postponed a decision. “This is an issue for everyone to weigh in on,” Glickstein said.
The parade’s promoter predicted a public outcry if Delray cancels the parade.
“The Irish of Palm Beach County will rise up against that idea,” warned Bernard Ryan of Festival Management Group. “There will be a green storm.”
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is a tradition in Delray Beach that began 45 years ago with an Irish bar owner carrying a pig in a small parade down Atlantic Avenue.
The parade struggled after the founder, Maury Power, died in 1996. Festival Management took control five years ago, replacing the marching bands that charged fees with Palm Beach County firefighters playing bagpipes and drums in a band that marched for free. The firefighter theme took off in 2010 when the Dublin Fire Brigade Pipe Band came from Ireland to perform.
More than 500 firefighters from Florida as well as Boston, New York City and two foreign countries came to march in the March 16, 2013, parade. Twelve ladder trucks from Miami to Martin County hoisted giant banners along Atlantic Avenue proclaiming their hometowns.
Parade grand marshal Harold Schaitberger, the president of the 300,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters, lists Delray Beach among the four best cities in America for firefighters to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. “The big parades are in New York City, Boston, Savannah — and Delray is right there,” he said.
Festival Management announced on May 3 that management of future parades has been given to county firefighter John Fischer and two co-workers, with Ryan continuing as a consultant. A press release referred future parade inquiries to IAFF Local 2928 in Palm Beach County.
City commissioners said they will determine which street-closing events to eliminate based on who benefits by each event.
“We have to start chopping,” Commissioner Al Jacquet said at the May 14 workshop. Events sponsored by the city, the Chamber of Commerce and local nonprofits are most likely to survive.
A firestorm over pensions
After the workshop, Fischer said patriotism and community unity are the worthy purposes of his parade. But on parade day he called the parade a “public relations bonanza” for firefighters seeking public support against cities and counties that cut their pension benefits.
“Children need to see clean-cut firefighters marching tall and proud with honor and dignity,” he said in March. “This parade couldn’t come at a better time than now, when firefighters across the country are being attacked by politicians.”
Schaitberger echoed that to motivate firefighters who marched in Delray’s parade.
“There are those who don’t appreciate us until they’re in need,” the union president told marchers during his pre-parade speech.
“They attack our benefits and retirement,” Schaitberger said. “I hope citizens of Delray Beach and Florida will realize in their time of need that none of you question your responsibility even in an economy that’s gone bust.”
Governments have been forced to cut pension benefits after they discovered that their pension fund investments weren’t generating the money that was promised before the recession.
Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton were the first nearby cities to respond with pension reform.
But Delray Beach avoided the dilemma until the same May 14 workshop, where a city auditor alerted commissioners to a $94 million shortfall in their pension fund for police and firefighters.
Commissioners have set a June 11 workshop to discuss the implications of that unfunded debt and whether pension benefits need to be cut here. “Taxpayers need to understand how significant these costs are,” Glickstein said.