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Fairs operating with fewer public funds

Public funding for many county fairs has declined in recent years and taxpayer money spent on the state fair has remained flat, but Ohioans still kick in millions of dollars for midway fun and the chance to chow down on a deep-fried Oreo cookie.

The Clark County Fair, held last week, gets the most public support for a county fair in the region: $164,042, according to the county agricultural society’s most recent tax filing.

Most of this money comes from a unique bed tax in Clark County hotels, according to Alan Hess, fair manager. It pays for day-to-day maintenance of the fairgrounds. About $3,300 of it comes from Clark County commissioners under a state law passed in 1953 that mandates fair subsidies in all Ohio counties.

Dan Bullen, southwest Ohio district director for the Ohio Fair Managers Association and boardmember for the Greene County fair, said fairs have seen their government funding decline in recent years.

“I think the fairs themselves should be self-supporting,” he said, adding: “Any bit of support and assistance we can get, we’ll take. A lot of the fairs are fairly poor and they don’t have the money or the ability to do a lot of upkeep to the properties.”

Greene County is unusual in that the agricultural society owns the fairgrounds, so it gets rent from the county extension office. It also gets the mandated county funding and commissioners have helped cover the cost of security from the sheriff’s office, which averages in the tens of thousands of dollars.

And it’s a lot easier to make ends meet with pleasant summer weather, Bullen added, estimating gate receipts are up nearly 30 percent this year as the fair continues this week.

State fair tab

The Ohio State Fair, which started last week and ends Sunday, gets $250,000 from the state budget to support the Junior Fair. That cash provides educational resources for kids, according to fair officials.

The rest of the state fair’s $7.5 million budget comes from rentals, ticket sales and other revenue from the fair itself, with the goal of breaking even every year, according to fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults.

A bigger cost is security: $1.3 million within the state Highway Patrol to keep the peace at the fairgrounds, which is state property, during the fair.

The highway patrol’s state fair budget includes payroll for 150 troopers, dispatchers and cadets working at the fair, as well as equipment and maintenance. Last year at the fair they responded to 728 calls for service, mostly for illnesses, missing persons or lost property.

“We handle everything from ensuring various details out in the parking lot, making sure everyone gets parked safely, to various duties throughout the fairgrounds … and any investigation that might come up during the fair,” said OSP spokeswoman Lt. Anne Ralston.

Maintaining the fairgrounds is the largest cost. The state’s current two-year budget includes $7.5 million for renovations at the Ohio Expo Center, which state fair officials point out is a year-round facility with more than 150 events hosted annually.

Maintaining county fairgrounds, which are owned by most counties, is the largest cost for counties, as well. Most of the funds contributed by counties goes to fix up buildings.

In return, the counties get tourism dollars, including sales tax revenue at the fair as well as other events throughout the year.

“There’s not just the rides and things like that, but also when the fair’s not in session they rent that place out to antique dealers and things like that,” said Clark County Administrator Nathan Kennedy.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County’s Agricultural Society received $64,226 from county officials to maintain the fairgrounds last year, county fair officials said. That was half the government funding it received in 2008, according to tax filings.

The Montgomery County Agricultural Society experienced a $219,707 total drop in revenue last year, compared to the year before. Expenses exceeded revenues by $32,665. John Yancik, vice president of the agricultural society, said the loss of a $180,000 contract for Miami Valley Hospital employee parking was a big factor.

Yancik said the value of the fair — and the reason the public supports it both through government grants and gate fees — goes way beyond corn dogs.

“It’s just like everything over at the Carillon (Historical Park). It’s tradition, history,” he said. “We do have many people in the city of Dayton that have no clue of where the food in the grocery store comes from, so that’s one week a year where we can try to educate a few folks.”

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