Budget, safety concerns disrupt a USS Kidd tradition

Almost every year since he was born, 25-year-old Jamie Dunegan and his family have watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July in Baton Rouge from what he says is the best seat in the house — sitting aboard the USS Kidd.

But this year, citing financial and safety concerns with the historic ship, officials with the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum announced they are suspending some of their most beloved and long-standing Independence Day traditions, including a mock aerial attack and allowing people to watch the fireworks from the ship.

“It’s a disappointment,” Dunegan said. “We go pretty much every single year. You can’t find a better spot to watch the fireworks. I think one year we gave up our tickets and just tried to sit on the levee. It just didn’t do it for us.”

For the past few decades, thousands of locals have flocked to the USS Kidd on July 4 for patriotic festivities including Air Raid Baton Rouge, an air demonstration in which low-flying fighter planes “attack” the ship as the ship fires rounds to defend itself. People have been able to buy tickets to watch the evening fireworks show from the ship.

But Alex Juan, executive director of the USS Kidd, said those things won’t be happening this year.

She said her agency has been under a microscope in the past year because of an audit being conducted by the State Inspector General’s Office. In addition, she said, there are lingering safety concerns stemming from a 2012 explosion on the ship that resulted in an employee losing three fingers.

“We’re in the middle of an audit and financial review that I’ve been dealing with since I’ve become executive director,” she said. “To say we’re in the middle of a financial crisis is putting it mildly at this point.”

She said it costs at least $50,000 a year to host the events, which are intended to be the USS Kidd’s largest annual fundraiser. However, she said, recent financial reviews have revealed that the event isn’t generating significant revenues.

“It’s not a gamble I could really take right now,” said Juan, who took the reins from former long-time executive Maury Drummond in December.

Juan said the USS Kidd Veterans Museum is also unable to purchase a $1 million liability insurance policy required to host the event and can’t afford the cost of holiday pay to staff the event.

“It was a tough decision to make,” Juan said. “Nobody wants to cancel a long-standing tradition.”

The Air Raid was last suspended in 2002, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Juan said the Kidd museum runs on a lean budget of $455,000 a year, which comes from self-generated revenues including tickets sales for tours, building rentals, gift shop sales and reunion bookings.

But during the past several years, she said, visits to the ship have declined as fewer people come to the Riverfront downtown for Independence Day activities.

Asked if mismanagement played any part in the Kidd museum’s financial issues, Juan said that’s something the Inspector General’s Office will ultimately determine in its report.

She said her agency has been working with the IG’s office for about a year. The IG’s office is reviewing a three-year period of financial statements, she said.

Greg Phares, chief investigator for the Inspector General’s office, said his office is investigating the management and finances of the USS Kidd.

He said he couldn’t comment on specifics, except to say that “the current executive director and management are being completely cooperative.”

Juan said previous management was engaging in “spending practices that are not the ones I want to continue.” She said she is using recommendations from the IG’s office to revamp policies.

In addition to financial setbacks, Juan said, the USS Kidd is still leery about safety concerns brought to the forefront in 2012 after a 14-year employee was maimed when a gun mount exploded while he was firing a three-shot volley.

Despite the incident, Air Raid Baton Rouge went on as scheduled for the two years that followed, using professional shooters instead of staff.

But, Juan said, as recently as last year’s show the shootings resulted in “hang fires,” which is a firearm malfunction resulting in an unexpected delay between pulling the trigger and igniting the weapon’s propellant.

“It was a concern when it was happening again, because that is how someone lost three fingers and ended up in the ICU,” Juan said.

Ultimately, Juan said she hopes to be able to bring the Air Raid event back in the future. But, she said, Baton Rouge residents won’t be shorted Fourth of July activities.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the USS Kidd is hosting a pared-down version of activities that will include patriotic music, a noon flag ceremony conducted by the Nation of Patriots in the Louisiana Memorial Plaza, a musical performance by Rosie and the Swingin’ Riveters at 1:30 p.m. and activities for children.

Fireworks are still viewable from the levee, beginning at 9 p.m.

And there are other events downtown Friday: Live patriotic music will be performed from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the levee stage, and the Baton Rouge Concert Band will play on the Louisiana State Capitol steps from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Beginning at 6 p.m. the First Baptist Church will host a free “festival of freedom” and various downtown bars are celebrating with live music.

Dunegan said his family likely will make other plans this year for the Fourth of July, absent the annual tradition at the Kidd that they had come to treasure.

“That was our thing and it’s been our thing for so long,” he said. “Since we’re not doing that, we’ll probably go see some family outside of Baton Rouge.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.