Jason Olson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The 111-year-old tradition called the Utah State Fair is hurting, but lawmakers say they want answers before they agree to render any first aid.
"I am not sure I support a large increase until you get these issues resolved," Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, warned fair officials in a Friday legislative committee meeting.
Utah State Fair Director Michael Steele appeared before the Natural Resources Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee to request $750,000 in one-time money to keep fair operations afloat through the rest of this fiscal year.
Legislative staff told lawmakers the fair is "broke" and slated to run out of money at the end of March.
Fair officials dipped into a "reserves" account, spending $1.3 million to prop up the fair last year, and saw a modest profit of just $47,000 due to nine days of rain. Steele said there is no money left to pay operational expenses and do any "sprucing" for the 2014 fair.
"This is our first time asking for this (one-time money) and the last place I want to be asking for this," Steele said.
On top of those financial troubles, three agricultural barns adjacent to North Temple were condemned immediately after the run of last year's fair because of structural issues.
Steele said the buildings are more than a century old and badly in need of attention.
"Without these barns, we cannot have a fair," he said. "The folks in agriculture fill these barns during the fair. This is a critical issue."
Because the barns were deemed hazardous and unusable, the fair was unable to lease them this year for winter storage of RVs or boats and lost $70,000 in revenue.
Josh Haines, director of the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management, said a site visit last fall revealed a backlog of repairs that need attention — problems that date back beyond current fair management.
"I found a report from 2000 that documented the cracking on the barns, so it has been ignored for about 14 years," Haines said.
The $2.5 million needed to rehabilitate the trio of barns has been identified as a top priority by the state building board, Haines said, and is a separate financial issue from the emergency that is dogging fair officials now.
Legislative staff noted that a quick review of the state fair's financial books is underway so the committee can have the information to decide on the supplemental appropriation, but the review is already raising concerns that Valentine voiced during Friday's meeting.
"The first (problem) is you lack internal controls out there, really badly," he said, adding that revenues don't match expenses and that the fair is spending a significant amount of money on contracts without putting those expenses out to bid.
"I am very distressed that we are being asked to bail out operations for this," Valentine said.
The committee will be sifting through requests for funding from various agencies and entities next week.
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