Agency targets county fair funds

Lisa Hunter

JOHN DAY - The news came like a sucker punch to Lisa Hunter.

A telephone call from the Oregon Fairs Association informed Hunter, a full-time employee at the Grant County Fairgrounds, that county fair funding could fall by the wayside in the next two years due to state budget cutting.

"I'm very upset about it. That's my job," Hunter said in a meeting with the Grant County Court on Feb. 19.

John McCulley, executive secretary for the Oregon Fairs Association, cautioned that it's too early to know whether counties will find themselves hosting fairs without state subsidies or whether fairgrounds employees might lose their jobs due to lack of state funding. The Oregon Legislature must wrestle with these questions.

"They're a long ways away from making any decisions," McCulley said on Feb. 19.

Rather, McCulley explained, in preparation for worst-case budget scenarios that could emerge from March and May revenue forecasts, legislators instructed state agency personnel to develop lists of cuts. The Oregon Department of Agriculture was one of the agencies instructed to find reductions of 30 percent.

"As a part of that 30 percent, they listed the county fairs. We started from there, and it's all in the hands of the legislature," McCulley said.

There is no consensus about county fair funding. The proposed 2003-2005 budget of Gov. Ted Kulongoski includes funding for county fairs, McCulley said.

In the agency's proposal, the $3.1 million cut would be spread over the 2003-2005 biennium and generally would not affect this summer's fairs, McCulley added. The Grant County Fair, for example, received its state distribution of nearly $42,000 in January for the 2003 fair. The fairs will go on, it seems, at least for this year.

With or without state funding, Grant County citizens sounded determined to host a fair.

"We're going to figure out a way to have it happen," vowed Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds.

"I want a county fair. That's my high priority," said Grant County Fair Board chairman Sharon Livingston.

However, Livingston noted that she expects furious lobbying to protect fair funding in Salem.

The lobbying is likely to be most intense for youth programs. Defunding of county fairs impacts 4-H and FFA, programs whose budgets already have suffered deep cuts, according to Katie Cannon, director of the Oregon State Fair.

Fiscal problems with fairs are widespread. While lottery funds support county fairs and the state's general fund helps fund the state fair, the same pot of money is shrinking.

"You already have one county fair, Multnomah County Fair, concerned that if they don't find funding, they will have some problems," Cannon said. "You'd have some county fairs that would be in serious trouble if they didn't get state funding."

The Oregon State Fair, while in a different category from county fairs, also faces funding pitfalls. Its biennial budget of $1.345 million is the target of a $100,000 cut in the governor's proposed 2003-2005 budget. At the same time, the state fair must cope with ever-increasing expenses, such as the voter-mandated hike in the minimum wage and the exploding costs of employee benefits and retirement system obligations, Cannon said.

State fair managers are trying to spread cuts out and still salvage funding for 4-H, Cannon said.

"We're trying to figure out the things that have the least impact on the fairgoers and the exhibitors, but probably everybody in these hard times will feel some impact," she said.

During the past two years, organizers of the state fair and leaders of county fairs have worked on a collaborative committee to improve efficiencies. While this streamlining continues, everyone will watch the state's revenue forecasts.

The ability to shuffle and defer spending for the state fair is limited, Cannon cautioned. There are fixed expenses, such as $12 million in lottery bonds for fairgrounds improvements that the state must pay back. Gate receipts are a critical source of revenue, so cancelling the fair is not a realistic option, Cannon said.

"It's much more complicated than just saying we will not have a fair," she said.

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