County commissioners recognize fairgrounds' value

John Dimick is a longstanding, committed, dedicated and valued citizen of this county, and I have said as much at every opportunity. However, I must take exception to some of what he said in his recent guest opinion, and I feel a responsibility to provide a number of clarifying facts.

Each member of the Board of Commissioners, the Jackson County Budget Committee and the county administrator feel that the Jackson County Fairgrounds and Exposition Park is an important part of our community. We fully understand the economic impact it provides to the community, and we understand the precarious nature of operating fairgrounds.

Some years, depending on factors such as the weather, best-laid plans can go south. Because of that understanding, the county has supported the fairgrounds with precious general fund dollars rather than use them to hire more sheriff's deputies, more health workers to fight communicable disease, to provide more substance abuse counseling, to provide more open hours at the libraries in each community, to add more deputy district attorneys to prosecute those who commit crimes against our citizens or to hire more parole and probation officers to assure those who get out of our undersized jail early don't commit another crime. With O&C revenue on the decline and no guarantee for the future, those general fund dollars are becoming even more precious.

Mr. Dimick asserts that the county has been remiss in its duties to find an additional funding source to subsidize the fairgrounds. At one point, state law allowed counties to create a lodging tax for the support of fairgrounds. That option no longer exists for counties and, in fact, it was legislatively removed as an option statewide to specifically block Jackson County's efforts to secure such funding.

The county also has studied the possibility of putting an operating levy on the ballot to support the combination of parks programs and the fairgrounds, but surveys have shown that such measures would go down by a large margin. The same would be true of a levy for each service individually. All of these efforts have been in conjunction with the Jackson County Fair Board.

Mr. Dimick also asserts that the county is "hampering a great community business asset by continually nit-picking and harassing the staff and Fair Board."

According to state law, the Fair Board is responsible for managing the county fair and all events that take place on the fairgrounds. They can enter into agreements for services without any county oversight whatsoever. However, according to state law, the county Board of Commissioners is ultimately responsible to make sure the fair is operating in accordance with budget law and is responsible for any financial debts created by operations of the fair. It's a delicate balancing act between the Fair Board and the Board of Commissioners.

The county has constantly been put in the uncomfortable position of having to cover Expo cash-flow needs with short-term loans. The Expo usually pays the loans back, but it was unable to this year. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate and completely necessary for the county administrator to meet in a public meeting and discuss potential problems that might exist with any department or agency within the county's budget. This is what happened the other day.

What was brought to our attention was that based on prior year cash-flow needs the Expo could be looking at a possible shortfall close to $450,000 in the current fiscal year, and if that shortfall rolls into next fiscal year, it could grow to nearly $1 million if nothing changed. The administrator was doing what we have consistently asked him to do, as well as abiding by the county charter and codified ordinance delineating his duties. Outside of potential impacts that might occur, absolutely no decision was made pending the opportunity for the Fair Board to review the potential problem and make a series of decisions and recommendations.

This is not an "us and them" issue. This is a "we" issue, to paraphrase Mr. Dimick's letter, with one exception. The policy makers are indeed trying to figure out how to make this all work for everyone. If there is to be a shift in budget policy toward the Expo, then we need to have that discussion openly and free of rock throwing in the middle of the discussion.

C.W. Smith is a Jackson County commissioner.

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