Committee Chair Marion Salzmann spoke to the Sherburne County Fair Board meeting Wednesday night, answering questions on the food budget for volunteer workers and other issues as Aitkin County Auditor and MN Federation of County Fairs representative Kirk Peysar looked on.
Discussion of a potential audit, presentations by state fair officials and approval of several budget proposals were among the items on the agenda at the regular meeting of the Sherburne County Fair Board at the Sherburne County Government Center Wednesday night. The board tabled action on several items, including the election of a new president and approval of the advertising budget for the coming year. Audit Discussion Sherburne County Commissioners John Riebel and Bruce Anderson addressed the meeting to express some concerns over declining revenues at the fair and potential improvements in the way funds are handled. Riebel had suggested an audit of the board’s books at the Sherburne County Board meeting earlier in the week. That discussion reportedly included a question as to whether such an audit could be conducted by the State of Minnesota, rather than having to be funded by the county. County Attorney Kathleen Heaney will research the matter and communicate with the board when the information is available, Riebel said. In his remarks, Riebel stated that the county board needs to be accountable to the taxpayers for funds they donate to the fair, and that recent negative income totals, a negative $53,000 in 2010 and a negative $20,000 in 2011 are “not a good use of tax dollars.” He also said that the fair had a net worth of $160,000 in 2003, compared to $77,351 in 2013, and took in $63,000 in gate receipts in 2003 and $26,000 in 2011. “People are not coming to the fair for some reason,” he said. Benson and Steele counties have had free entry fairs for some time, Riebel said, and they benefit from increased revenues from concessions and other sales. He also said that he is a member of the fair board, as well as a county commissioner, and that he “was not blaming anybody” for the current situation. While Sherburne County has donated $20,000 to the fair in the past, the donation this year is $10,000. That $20,000 “is a lot of money,” Riebel said, and the board has to answer to the taxpayers as to where their money goes. He concluded his remarks by saying: “Something is clearly not working, something is wrong.” In his comments, Anderson said that the county has a “great fair,” but that it is now time to “think outside the box” in terms of how resources are allocated. While there are “no questions of embezzlement” or other improprieties, Anderson urged the board to “do it correctly” when it came to accountability in the financial area. He said that the county has a “five-year budget plan” that the levy is based on, and once that is set, “it is what it is” for that time period. Issues such as the use of personal credit cards to meet expenses and reimbursements of same are “a flag” that something needs to be changed in the system, Anderson said. He also urged the fair board to work with the City of Elk River Parks and Recreation and the mayor to find new attractions to boost revenues. Aitkin County Auditor Kirk Peysar had earlier addressed the board along with Joe Scapanski of the Minnesota State Fair Board of Managers on the challenges county fairs face in terms of fair governance, conflicts of interest, early school start and competition for Legacy Grant monies with library and arts groups who are outspending the fair organizations in terms of paid lobbyists at the Capitol. Adding to Anderson’s remarks, Peysar said, at the county level, receipts and full documentation were the norm before any funds were issued for any projects, and that funds were kept in designated charge accounts with authorized personnel able to move funds for items with recurring expenses. Volunteer groups generally work with the “best of intentions,” but can sometimes become too casual with funds over time. He advised the board members to work to steer clear of any “questionable expenses,” noting the difficulty in clearing up any subsequent allegations of mishandling. Procedures and protocols for revenues need to be set up, he said, and “double check accounting” are all good business practices to follow. Former board treasurer Irene Kostreba said she had taken a financial management class for fair boards and similar organizations offered by Peysar’s sister, and that the board “is doing all of those things” that are taught in the class. Committee Chair Marion Salzmann conducted a discussion on the funds used to provide meals for fair volunteers. On her way to the podium, Riebel asked her if she was planning to “ask for more money” (presumably from the county). “Shut up, John” was her smiling reply as she made her way to the podium to begin her presentation. Responding to questions about the $2,000 in the budget for food and water for fair volunteers, Salzmann replied she did not know why that amount has become a problem now, and she wondered if the taxpayers really objected to feeding the volunteers who work long hours every day at the fair. She also stated the fair is “a corporation, not a county entity,” and that the Mn. Dept. of Agriculture has audited the books every year in recent memory, and has never raised an issue with feeding volunteers at the fair. Salzmann said cutting expenses was necessary, and she pointed out costs like hotel stays for people attending fair conventions were one place to start if the conventions are held in the Twin Cities, which is within driving distance. A question from the floor regarding replacing ribbons with stickers for fair projects was raised, to which Salzmann replied that some cuts had to be made in a “desperate” situation, and ribbons were part of that. “Open Class” ribbons were still awarded, since a supply was on hand, and the rosettes for horse show winners were paid for by the horse clubs. “4-H versus Fair board” is a problem in Aitkin County as well, Peysar said, and is something most fairs have to contend with every year. All county fairs are currently affected by the struggling economy, he said, as sales inside the fairgrounds are being hurt by “dot com” businesses that sell the same products on the internet. He also commented he was “not sure” about the review process in the Dept. of Agriculture audits, and that he was also unsure whether the state would do an audit of a fair board in the same way that they do for municipalities and county governments. Other Business Roger Kostreba, who chaired the meeting in the absence of a sitting president, suggested the election of a new president be tabled until the next regular meeting, which was approved by voice vote. Former President Lori Sowers resigned her post in January. A $3,300 budget request for funds to buy buttons and other materials for the Sherburne County Fair’s 125th birthday celebration was approved. A motion to table the advertising budget until more detailed information was available was approved. A $15,000 budget for the demolition derby was approved, and Irene Kostreba told the board that the amount of grants applied for should be known shortly. A total of $30,000 was received last year. The inverted cost versus return ratio on the current beer garden operation was discussed (a committee was formed), the need to bring the 4-H and Agricultural Society elements closer together was debated, and the need for running water bathrooms at the fairgrounds was expressed.