Fair’s general manager says fair board is looking into sales tax increase to fund fair

From the March 9, 2017 print edition

Would Humboldt County voters approve a sales tax increase to help support the Humboldt County Fair (HCF) like voters in Del Norte County did in 2014? That’s a question that was raised Tuesday at a Sacramento meeting of the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF).

The chairman of CARF’s Live Racing Committee urged HCF General Manager Richard Conway to follow the Del Norte County Fair’s lead and look into asking voters to pass a sales tax increase that would funnel money to the non-profit association, which excludes the public from participating in its meetings. Del Norte voters approved a quarter-of-a-cent sales tax increase for seven years.

“What is Humboldt doing to help itself out?” asked Fresno County Fair General Manager John Alkire. “Humboldt should look to the Del Norte County Fair and maybe that would help your situation as well. What Randy (Hatfield, the fair’s GM) did was groundbreaking.”

Conway said that the Humboldt County Fair Association is “talking about” a placing a sales tax initiative on the ballot.

“We’re looking at the best way to address it and move forward with it,” Conway told committee members.

Over the past four years, the fair association’s operating revenue has not kept pace with expenditures. The fair board recently spent approximately $68,000 on legal bills and a settlement with this newspaper’s attorney over making its financial documents available to the public. The Del Norte County Fair is a public entity as a state agricultural association and is governed by public meeting laws. The HCF was an affiliate of a government entity until 2015 when the fair’s board of directors voted to change the association’s historic status to a private non-profit and exclude the public from its business meetings. Occasionally it allows for “community comment” at the beginning of the meetings before the board retreats behind closed doors. At its last meeting in February, it did not allow for any public comment.

The issue of funds for the HCF came up Tuesday during a business item aimed at CARF subsidizing the fair’s horse racing operations in 2017 after it lost $63,683 in revenue and an additional $93,022 drop in purses in 2016. The HCF lost the commissions and purse money after Golden Gate Fields, which runs concurrently with Ferndale, opted to stop subsidizing the HCF in 2016. CARF’s Larry Swartz-lander, interim executive director, told the committee that the joint powers authority couldn’t afford to lose any more racing fairs from its membership. The organization is down to just four racing fairs, having lost the Sonoma County Fair several years ago. It opted to drop out of the organization and conduct its own race meet. CARF provides member fairs with equipment, personnel and a sharing of other resources, including purse subsidies.

Swartzlander asked the committee members to approve a subsidy to the HCF of $30,000 and the payment of approximately $22,000 in CARF excess funds that would have benefit the three other racing fairs.

“The point is, your fellow brethren in CARF are helping you out,” pointed out the California State Fair CEO Rick Pickering.

“We appreciate everyone’s support,” said Conway.

In addition, the committee voted to support a request for public funds from the California Department of Agricultural’s Division of Fairs & Expositions for $33,008 to pay for a new inner rail at the HCF. The California Horse Racing Board stated last year that the inner rail was not safe. Fair officials fought against the decision and the CHRB gave the fair one year to replace the rail. The fair board sold raffle tickets last year to fund the rail and other backstretch improvements. Now, the state will pay for the entire project.

In other business, committee members were briefed on the bleak outlook of prize money that will be offered to horsemen on the fair racing circuit this summer. CARF’s fund used to enhance prize money through the years is “in the hole” according to Swartzlander, and in a big way. Swartzlander projected a $657,596 deficit in its Consolidated Purse Fund in 2017 and that number included several areas of purse reductions, including cutting Ferndale’s prize money by $35,000. Last year, CARF’s fund had to pay $114,086 of the total purses paid in Ferndale. More purse reductions are on the table at the end of 2017, according to a letter from Swartzlander to Conway. Swartzlander also said that he is hoping that the HCF 2018 dates will not be overlapped by any other fair, as has been the case for many years, or by Golden Gate Fields. Exclusive race dates bring a windfall to the HCF but adversely affect other horse racing entities in California. The last time the HCF had one week of exclusive race dates was in 2010. According to Swartzlander, if the HCF had to end racing and/or drop out of CARF, the hit to the joint powers authority would be $68,000.

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