Quick path sought to form district and raise tax funds

As the Del Norte County Fair Board works to keep the fairgrounds open, its members have asked the Board of Supervisors to ease the process.

Supervisors will hold a public hearing and vote on a resolution in January that would bring the Fair Board's application to create a special district before the Local Agency Formation Commission. If approved, the supervisors' resolution would allow the Fair Board to bypass having to submit a petition to LAFCO with signatures from 25 percent of the county's registered voters, according to fair CEO Randy Hatfield.

"(It) would take quite a long time for us to do that, as well as the time frames and deadlines we have to meet in order to get any financial initiative on the ballot in November," Hatfield said.

The Fair Board, part of the 41st District Agricultural Association, hopes to get approval from LAFCO to create a special district by June or July at the latest, Hatfield said. The new district would be made up of directors elected by the public in November 2014. Voters would also be asked to approve a seven-year 0.25 sales tax increase to fund the new district.

The tax measure would allow the fairgrounds to continue operating beyond the 2016 fair, the point at which the Fair Board expects to otherwise be out of money. Even though the fairgrounds is state-owned property and the current board members are appointed by the governor, California's fairs haven't been funded by the state since 2011.

If supervisors approve the resolution next month, it is likely LAFCO would OK the creation of a special fair district conditional upon the tax measure passing, Fair Board attorney Martha Rice said. Apart from the proposed sales tax increase, there isn't any other funding mechanism proposed for the new fair district, she said.

"In November, even if LAFCO approves everything, if the tax doesn't pass the district won't be formed," Rice said.

The Board of Supervisors would make the decision on whether to place the tax measure on the 2014 ballot, Rice said. It would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

Even if a special district is created, the current Fair Board would not be relieved of its duties despite the lack of state funding, Rice said. The state would also continue to own the fairgrounds itself. Rice said she is currently considering what the roles, responsibilities and duties of the current board and the new district board would be.

"We have to be very delicate in doing that because apparently they tried something in Tehama County and it was too broad," Rice said. "The Fair Board there didn't retain enough duties and responsibilities. It delegated too many to the new organization, so we need to find that right balance. We're in the process of doing that."

Supervisors continued to express their support for the creation of a new locally-controlled fair district. District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin said that although he opposes any sales tax increase, the alternative is worse. But he said the Fair Board should also look into operating the fair through a private business or organization.

"I have to support this and I would hope the Fair Board, once this all happens, really looks closely and examines a private model of how to operate this fair," he said. "This is a very valuable piece of property and the Board should seriously look at a private way to run this so that it not only just exists, but it actually flourishes."

District 2 Supervisor Martha McClure asked the Board if there was any interest in setting up a non-profit support group to help with the effort to get people to vote for the tax measure.

Fair Board member Kevin Hartwick said the only way the fair can continue to exist is to have outside organizations invest in the facility. He offered to share the Fair Board's strategic plan to obtain outside dollars with the Board of Supervisors.

"In the future the only way we can exist is to have significant investment from outside, it's not going to come from the public sector forever," he said "We recognize that and strongly encourage and are encouraging people to come forth and talk about the future. The future means private investment."

A separate group will also be organized to drum up support for the creation of a new fair district and the tax measure to fund it, Hartwick said. The Board will entertain advice on how such a group could be structured, he said.

California's fairs had been funded through horse racing since 1933 to the tune of $30 million to $40 million a year. Since then, lotteries, card rooms and tribal gaming changed the face of gambling and betting on horses lessened in popularity.

Since state funding stopped in early 2011, the Del Norte County Fair has experienced an annual deficit of about $90,000. To help make ends meet and keep the grounds open, the Fair Board cut its budget and staff and created a rainy-day fund.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.