After a year where the Nebraska State Fair lost a projected $1.4 million, the fair board passed a budget Friday reducing expenses in areas such as personnel and entertainment. The new budget projects putting the State Fair back in the black by more than $300,000 next year.
State Fair Board Chairman Chris Kircher called the 2020 budget “fiscally conservative,” and one that “will get State Fair finances back on track.”
The fair board meeting, which took place at Fonner Park, wasn’t without its share of drama. At the meeting’s beginning, Patrick Kopke, chief of finance and administration for the State Fair, told the board that unless the State Fair makes some changes in fair operations, it was only one year away from bankruptcy.
After his presentation, Kopke submitted his letter of resignation.
During his presentation, Kopke admonished the board for their lack of concern about the State Fair’s spending, along with not heeding his concerns in November 2018 when he questioned the financial feasibility of the Fair’s concert-bundling plan.
Also, Jeremy Jensen, who is the board’s finance director, added a touch of drama during his report when he said he believed Friday’s meeting was its most important meeting since the State Fair moved to Grand Island from Lincoln in 2010, precisely because of the financial concerns at hand.
“The 2019 budget, from start to finish, was flawed beyond belief,” Jensen said.
Jensen also expressed his frustrations over the negative finger-pointing that has taken place about the Fair and its personnel over the last year. He told the board the performance of this year’s Fair was the responsibility of the board and the Fair’s staff, not of one individual.
After State Fair Executive Director Lori Cox gave her 2020 budget presentation, the board went into executive session for nearly two hours to discuss personnel. After resuming session, there were several questions about the proposed budget before the board voted 8-1 to accept Cox’s budget recommendations. The meeting then adjourned.
After the meeting, Kircher and Jensen met with reporters, where they disputed Kopke’s assertion about the State Fair going bankrupt within a year.
Kircher said it is the board’s responsibility for the success or missteps of the State Fair.
“The actions that were taken today are actions that we take very seriously,” he said. “We have put together a careful plan — with the input of our executive director — and have passed a budget that will put this fair in a positive fiscal position. Despite comments that were made earlier today (by Kopke), we passed this budget today and feel pretty good about (it).”
Jensen said the board made some “tough decisions” concerning the now-passed budget.
“But as far as the future goes, everybody should check back with us in a year and see if we have been able to uphold our end of the bargain,” he said.
Jensen said the 2020 budget is a pared-down version of the 2019 budget, especially when it comes to revenue expectations.
“When you at the way the 2019 budget was put together, there were some estimates for revenue that were not likely to be hit even in an optimum world,” he said.
“Taking a look at expenses, we can talk about being over budget and talk about all these other matters, but, at the end of the day for the 2019 budget, we are probably going to come in under budget for overall expenses for operating,” Jensen said. “It was a matter of taking a step back and trying to figure out ways that realistically measured the amount of revenue we can expect and try to trim some of the expense.”
Jensen said one budget cut involved fair staff. He said the 2020 budget cuts about $600,000 for personnel.
“A lot of this is going to be reclassification,” he said. “We (are) still going to have a lot of seasonal help and have the volunteers step forward so the quality of the event doesn’t fall.”
Jensen said the number of full-time employees will have to be reduced.
“We expect that number to be around eight to ten people,” he said.
Kircher, when asked about Kopke’s financial assessment about the State Fair, said, “We absolutely disagree with his assessment. He is certainly able to have his own opinion, but I think he is wrong. The fact that we passed a budget today that we feel good about — and that our executive director feels good about — and will accomplish the very thing against what he feels might happen. It might have been nice if he had stuck around and seen the budget and had a feel for what we had in mind before making remarks like he did.”
Kircher said he and the board expect Cox to live up to the budget she proposed.
One of the areas that the budget scaled down was in entertainment spending. For prime acts of the Fair next year, there will be nine concerts. The Fair’s total entertainment budget saw a $723,100 reduction from the previous year.
Jensen said the problem with the 2019 budget was that the revenue the Fair was expected to take in was “exaggerated.”
One of the things that didn’t align was the weather, with a record rainfall of more than 13 inches during August that shut down parking at Fonner Park. That weather event forced the State Fair to shuttle fairgoers from six locations around Grand Island, which created an expense not budgeted for.
Part of the 2020 budget sets aside money for the Fair operations in case there is another repeat of this year’s rainy August. The rain fund allows for five days of weather interference.