The Clatsop County Fair & Expo is nearing budget limits just halfway through the fiscal year, and officials are pointing to a unique — often confusing — management setup as the cause.
The budget for the fair is nearly $1.4 million, a 10 percent decrease from the previous year. The fair spent nearly all of its materials and services budget — roughly $438,000 — in six months.
The remainder of the budget is relatively on track, but the fair will need to take a number of steps to provide materials and services for the rest of the year.
“That is concerning to me. I have shared that on several occasions with the Fair Board,” Monica Steele, the county’s budget and finance director, said at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting. “I encouraged them to take a hard look at how their spending habits are occurring.”
The fair hosts two of the largest annual local galas —the Astoria-Warrenton Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival and the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival — along with the county fair and several other events.
Unforeseen maintenance issues that have arisen in the past few months — such as a $12,000 emergency roof repair — have put a strain on the budget, as well. A high degree of staff turnover in the past few years — including this year — has also made it harder for the fair.
“A lot of things just came to a head,” Steele said.
Spending choices have not always been prudent, said John Lewis, the fair’s maintenance supervisor, at a Wednesday meeting.
“I have seen a lot of things come through here that were not good choices,” he said.
The Fair Board held a special meeting last week to discuss priorities for the remainder of the year and potential areas for savings. It may postpone special projects — including one that would install new heaters in the arena and another to renovate the farm house. It likely will also transfer money from other funds, including $100,000 of its contingency money that will require approval from county commissioners.
At any given time, the fair has no more than three or four full-time employees based at the fairgrounds. The fair has been especially short-handed since Fair Manager Kathi Mattinen needed medical leave. The fair office is located more than 3 miles away from the county’s main building on Exchange Street.
“It’s just so much easier when you’re in the main building,” Lewis said. “We’re just so far out that it can be hard to get things communicated.”
Unlike other county departments, the fair is not supervised by the county manager.
“It makes it a unique dynamic. It makes it kind of difficult, too,” Steele said. “Getting everybody to get on the same page and communicate at the same time can be kind of challenging. It’s a complicated thing for people to understand, and they’re doing their best.”
In an otherwise positive performance review of County Manager Cameron Moore released in July, commissioners asked that he work to improve county staff’s relationship with the Fair Board.
Commissioner Lisa Clement, a liaison between the two boards, said some at the fair have their guard up about working with the county.
“They have questions for me that they don’t understand. ‘Why do we need to watch that budget?’ I don’t think it’s, really, that they’re trying to do anything illegally,” she said earlier this month. “I just think that they are leery of letting people know what they’re doing.”
Commissioner Sarah Nebeker shook her head as Clement offered the report. “Hopefully you can help them see the need for them to communicate,” she said.
But commissioners have not necessarily been active in attending Fair Board meetings in recent years, said Mike Autio, the Fair Board’s chairman. Also, until this year, the budget has mainly been handled by the fair manager, and many have come and gone in the past decade, he said. The board is now picking up more of the slack in the budget process.
“We’ve been sort of removed from that as a fair board,” Autio said. “Now we’ve been trying to be actively involved in that budget process.”
Autio also pointed to staff turnover in recent years at both the fair and the county manager’s office as possible reasons for the lack of communication.
“We’re definitely taking steps to communicate a lot better,” Lewis said.
Clement said she will also continue to work toward improved communication.
“If you tell us what you need, you know, we have a full budget process. You can come anytime and speak to us about what you need and what is on the plan and what your vision is,” Clement said. “All of them have been here for multigenerations and so have I. I think there’s some kind of weird, like, ‘OK, we can talk to her,’ sort of thing going on.”
At a meeting Wednesday, Steele reviewed the fair’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year line by line with the Fair Board, though it has yet to be finalized.
“I’ve been trying to be more of a presence at Fair Board meetings, mostly for them to know that I’m here to support them,” Steele said.
Board members appeared to appreciate their involvement in the process.
“I’d like to see more of it,” Autio said.