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County fairs in jeopardy

In bid to save $32M, governor proposes ending funding to such events
By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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County fairs are in the bull’s eye as the state looks for ways to cut the budget. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate the $32 million funding for 2012 could put 29 fairs in jeopardy, according to the California Fairs Alliance. Although Auburn’s Gold Country Fair is not on the endangered list, it would still feel an impact, interim CEO Laurie Johnson said Tuesday. “We knew that some of our allocations could be cut, which we are willing to work with and adjust to. But when 100 percent is cut all of a sudden, that makes a big difference.” The Gold Country Fair’s allocation for 2011 is $160,000, she said. However, she did not have figures readily available on the fair’s total cost. Johnson and Joan Bartosik, CEO of the Placer County Fair, attended Assembly subcommittee budget hearings Monday and were planning to go to Thursday’s state Senate subcommittee hearings. “It went very well,” Bartosik said about Monday’s meeting. “We had a strong showing of fair managers. Our advocacy group explained themselves very well — that this is not just a cut to the budget. Yes, you’re eliminating $32 million, but we also generate revenue. Just in sales tax alone, we bring in $126 million. They’re putting that at risk by eliminating the support funding.” The Placer County Fair in Roseville, which is on the most-at-risk list, received $186,000 from the state this year. “My operating revenue for 2011 is $1.38 million,” Bartosik said. “We generate $11.4 million in spending activities in Placer County. I can’t imagine that anyone would cut us. We are an economic engine here in Placer County. I think it is really easy to look at a budget and say let’s cut these expenses and not look at the revenue these expenses bring.” Johnson said that part of the problem is that people only see the fair as a “fun” pastime. “Fairs generate revenue,” she said. “We make more money to fund things like health care and education…What we get, we give back five times that amount — that’s just in state taxes. That’s not considering what we give to city and counties.” As they monitor budget talks, Johnson and Bartosik are going over their fair budgets “line by line” to find cuts. “We’re not going to use (all of our funding) this year and then have to face that scare of not having funding next year,” Johnson said. “We’re cutting now in case we don’t get that allocation or a percentage of it.” She’s looking at cutting staff hours and replacing paid employees with volunteers for the fair and other events. “We have so many nonprofits that support us and we support them, so it is forming a partnership of (mutual support).” Raising prices is another possibility. “We may have to charge more for things (such as) renting the grounds,” Johnson said. “It is like a domino effect. It would go right down the line for people coming to visit, renting buildings. But we’d have to do some strict budget cuts here first” For Bartosik, Brown’s proposal was not a surprise. “We saw this coming,” she said. “That’s why we were very careful about doing our 2011 budget. Besides the cuts we self-imposed, we added new sources of revenue by going to (year-round) paid parking. Until now, we were only charging for parking during the four days of the fair.” It’s a less painful way of paring expenses. “We can’t go back to our renters and raise rents,” she said. “They’re already paying a fair price — nonprofits using our facilities for crab feeds and other events.” Fair officials are also making their case to the state. “We’re all writing to our local legislators, too, at this point,” Bartosik said. And advocates are putting emphasis on flexibility.. “The one thing that was a recurring theme (Monday) was that we are, as an industry, wide open to alternatives on funding methods,” Bartosik said. “We are willing to talk options jointly worked on with the advocacy team, legislators and local leaders.” Another avenue fair executives are exploring is forming foundations to accept community donations. That’s an idea Johnson is considering locally. “We’ve talked about it but haven’t started the process,” she said. At Auburn’s Echo Valley Ranch, which sells supplies to and sponsors many 4H and FFA students and their families, owner Greg Kimler said funding the fairs is more a moral than an economic issue. “The fair is more than a bunch of rides,” he said. “It is the future of agriculture (in the county) and a stepping stones for kids who want to have a career in agriculture. … The exhibits are important to show what Placer County has to offer in agriculture.” Cancellation of the fair would impact his business somewhat, but not a huge amount, he said. He and employee Connie Watson support the fair 100 percent, they said. At the Auburn Town Center, Auburn resident Lorraine Kennedy said she thinks it’s probably worth it to continue the funding because of the value of the fair as a family-friendly activity. “People can’t go out and do as much as a family because of the large expense,” she said. “Going to the fair and doing things there as a family unit is important and is something a family can afford to do.” According to Nevada County resident Matthew Morris, the state is missing the real issues. Instead of focusing on cutting funding to fairs, officials should be looking at “Proposition 13 and its impact on commercial property,” he said. Reach Gloria Young at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.