Monday, January 26, 2009

Fair Park financial troubles? There’s one good option

Hi everyone,

As Pooh says, "Curiouser and curiouser."

Saturday's column:

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.




Anonymous said...

I see that a WB News reader thought this was great, and you didn't "ramble" as usual. Is that what they call "damning with faint praise"?

Mpeterson said...

He said something to the effect that he usually finds my column 'unreadable' -- I think it was.

His quoting from my "two options" worried me a bit though, since I didn't pose two options.

You know, I don't mind irritating people as long as I do it via clear prose so, the thought that I might be irritating people with unclear prose, that is cause for concern.

This weekend promises to be, once again, unreadable. Next week too. Next week will be something in honor of Darwin Day on the 12th. :)

tiddly pom

justanothercow said...

I'm thinking that your columns are starting to gain some "traction" - you are getting responses in the letters to the editor - heck I'm not counting, but I think more than Owen Robinson gets, and I think you have caused Glenn Grothman to wet on himself two times now (the China education thing & the use of the word neocon). I also notice that Mark Behling took a shot at one of your fellow columnists, John Torinus, another person who seems to have broad views that people can relate to. (unless they are defenders of the "Old Grand Lady" GOP - OGLGOP -pronounced "ogglegop").

Now, I am well-educated (if being alumnus of UW-Wash. Co./UWM qualifies), well-read (in the past year I read 18 nonfiction hardcover books, I read 3 daily newspapers), but I admit my writing skills are not that good. That being said, please take this personally when I suggest that you might want to adopt a writing style that is a little easier for everyone to digest, including those of us that try to understand what you are saying, but find that process tedius. I am not saying "dumb down". Otherwise, you might only appeal to a niche audience (like Robinson/Behling) - I think you have the intellectual cajones to attract a more varied group.

Good luck with your columns, and I hope you are blessed with the inspiration to find more topics.

justanothercow said...

And to set the record straight, I was not referring to the Fair Park column - that was rather well-written. I guess that column would be the best example to follow - keep it up!

Mpeterson said...

Justanothercow --

Thank you so much for your comments. I'm afraid academics are uniformly among the worst writers on the planet so, thanks for bearing with me. I am trying to learn how to cover these topics clearly and adequately in 720 words or less.

My older friends and colleagues remind me, often, that when your readership has trouble understanding something you've written, it's ALWAYS your fault and not the reader's. I think that's pretty sound advice.

Having said all that, I'm afraid tomorrow's column will be a bit of a disappointment; I've had to respond to Senator Grothman.... I don't mind him calling me a materialist and pro-infanticide (which, I think, is lawyer-talk for atheistic baby-killer), but nobody calls me lazy and walks away without a conversation.

I am grateful for your comments. Please feel free to cut loose on me for failing to say things as clearly as I can.


Anonymous said...

Do you even invesigate the story or just post erroneous inglammatory ideas on a whim?

Mpeterson said...


If you meant non-glamorous ideas, a lot of details from county board meetings are non-glamorous... I just used what I found in the public minutes available through the county website.

If you meant "inflammatory" ideas, then you've confused me. I'm not sure what could be inflammatory about the information that's available on the county websites or by reading the paper? Unless of course it's something you didn't want anyone to notice.

In either case, if you're suggesting that I didn't "investigate" the details...well, I'm not sure I'd call going through the minutes of last year's meetings "investigating." That seems like a $20 word for just browsing 'em -- which was all I did.

From what I read in the paper, all sorts of supervisors are showing up at committee meetings that only require a few (what is it, 4 or 5?) to show up. That makes me wonder if they think something unusual is going on.

I'll be happy to retract any errors in anything I wrote and apologize publicly. Please let me know if I got something wrong.