As Pooh says, "Curiouser and curiouser."
Fair Park: There’s one good option
My favorite part of the County Fair is the livestock, especially the 4-H exhibits – and watching tourists from Milwaukee come out to see what real cows look like. A few years ago a lady from Chicago asked me to take a picture of her standing beside a calf.
Washington County has a beautiful facility, but a series of cost overruns have put Fair Park, and the county budget, in financial jeopardy. We’re told the county has four options. That’s not true. There’s only one option.
The financial troubles are mainly the result of two recent, overly enthusiastic building projects: the Ziegler Family Exposition Center and an RV park. Why would the Agriculture and Industrial Society (AIS, the nonprofit the runs Fair Park for the county) spend money on two additions they can’t pay for?
Bootstrapping potential markets always raises the question of whether you 1) boost attendance first – bring out the crowds – to justify putting up new buildings or 2) build new buildings first to draw attendance and, then, hopefully, the profits to pay for them. AIS gambled on No. 2 and lost.
None of this happened overnight.
The Education Committee minutes, starting on March 31, begin to tell the story. Nancy Justman, chairwoman of AIS, “presented a draft master plan for Fair Park dated February 11, 2008, and reviewed the 32 items identified in the plan. It was noted the items have not been prioritized and there are no cost figures associated with the items.” The Education Committee members approved the draft – apparently on the basis of trust, since they accepted a “master plan” that had no cost figures and no spending priorities. In the months that followed, no plan beyond this draft was approved by the County Board.
After March 10, new supervisors were elected, summer passed and, by early November, the Finance Committee had hammered out and approved a solid county budget.
Then something odd happened: a few weeks after the budget was finished AIS asked for the extra $410,000 to cover its overruns. AIS had to know about the additional $130,000 worth of improvements, apparently approved on the fly as construction was underway. Moreover, since the summer’s main events had failed to produce the anticipated profits, someone at AIS had to have known, well before the budget was finished, that they needed an additional $410,000. So why would AIS bring it up after the budget was passed? I’d like to know.
More alarming, when the request was finally presented in December, it was still missing the dollar amounts any competent County Board needs to make a good decision. The minutes from the County Board proceedings on Dec. 9 indicate that, as they’d done nearly seven months earlier, members of the Board asked for an updated business plan, this time to be submitted no later than Jan. 15.
On Jan. 7 the Education Committee met to hear Doug Johnson present this updated “business plan.” Twenty-four supervisors showed up (at a meeting they weren’t all required attend) to make sure this was handled properly. One of them went to the trouble to write a letter to the Daily News alerting county residents to how much attention this issue had drawn from the entire board.
The “business plan” the committee, and the entire board, had asked for, the plan that would supposedly give them enough information to form a good judgment, included only a single year of planning and – once again – contained no dollar amounts: no indications of how much the particulars were going to cost. That’s not a plan, that’s an outline of a plan.
We don’t like federal or state governments giving away our money without accountability, so why would we settle for it at the county level? Fortunately, from the sounds of it, we have supervisors in place to make sure we get accountability.
Washington County has to have a county fair. It’s an important part of our heritage – plus its fun; but in the absence of good information nobody can make good decisions, only hasty ones.
There aren’t four options, there’s only one: make sure the County Board has enough information to make a good decision. Without accurate numbers, a complete and competent business plan that includes specific costs and spending priorities, the County Board should refuse to give away any of our tax dollars to anyone.