The Fair Board has asked the Jackson County commissioners to forgive $314,305 in debt it has accrued since 2011.
Fair officials say forgiving the short-term loans will help The Expo secure about $242,000 in new agreements from sponsors who have been reluctant to invest because of a perception the money will be used to pay off debt.
"Those are stopped dead in their tracks with a debt to the county," Fair Board President Chris Smith said at a commissioners meeting today. "We're trying to get a leg up. It's really difficult when you're strung with past practices that accrued so much debt."
Smith said in a letter to the commissioners that those practices have caused some tension between the Fair Board and the county.
"The Fair Board needs a fresh start to continue to develop a relationship with the community, the (commissioners) and the administration of Jackson County that is based on honesty, transparency, trust and coordination," the letter reads.
Smith says forgiving the debt will help the fair become more self-reliant. Going forward, county funds for The Expo would be used to maintain county-owned buildings and the 4-H program if the commissioners approved a supplemental budget.
"Acting on this issue, the (commissioners) can rest assured that the Board/BOC partnership that develops will be the anchor action that will create the foundation to never rely upon general fund dollars again," it reads.
The county's budget committee originally OK'd a three-month budget of $710,732 for fiscal year 2013-14 as long as The Expo did not accrue any more debt.
Expo officials said they cut employee hours in November and December, when events are less frequent, and used outside promoters for the venue's two concerts to save money. The county in September approved a supplemental $711,987 budget to carry the facility for the remaining nine months of the fiscal year.
Smith's letter says changing how The Expo does business has been paying off, with its three major events making money: the Jackson County Fair, $152,000; the Harvest Fair, $40,000; and the Wild Rogue Pro Rodeo, $58,000. Expo Director Dave Koellermeier said the facility also plans to add more partnerships and sponsors.
"We need to get back to selling, and by that I mean traditional sales," Koellermeier said.
Jackson County Budget Committee Chairman Dick Rudisile cautioned against approving the Fair Board's request, saying it could ask for more money down the road.
"None of the promises seem to be made," Rudisile said.
Commissioner Chairman Don Skundrick echoed that concern.
"It seems like every new Fair Board has a new solution, and it's all going to be a lot better at the end of the day if we'll just give them a little more room," Skundrick said. "I'm very sensitive to the taxpayers' money, and that's where it comes out of."
Commissioner John Rachor, who serves as liaison to the Fair Board, said he is in favor of forgiving the debt, as he's noticed the "positive changes" the restructuring has wrought.
"We have one of the nicest facilities in the state," Rachor said. "I think we can work this out."
Commissioner Doug Breidenthal agreed, saying he has seen the fair's finances trend in a positive direction. He added forgiveness of the balance should be a line in the sand.
"I'm on board with doing this," Breidenthal said. "But at the same time, we've been down this road before. This is my line, period. I'm not going to budge from that either."
County officials will hold a public hearing before making a decision. A date has not yet been set.
— Ryan Pfeil