GUEST COMMENTARY: Citizens deserve another option to save Boone County fairgrounds

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 2:22 p.m. CDT

About 15 years ago, Boone County bought the fairgrounds for $2.8 million. There was controversy then, but the county assured us it would be fixed up soon and never use general revenue funds to do so.

Since then, the county auditor has continually raised financial red flags on the operation, and three years ago it was discovered the fairgrounds, now known as the Central Missouri Events Center, was losing $100,000 annually and had accumulated a maintenance backlog of $1 million. Most recently, we learned that the county has been tapping general revenue for some time (broken promise). We all agree this cannot continue.

However, the proposed fix before voters on Aug. 5 is a multi-topic proposal to inject funds into the same failed oversight model that has not served the Events Center well, coupled with a new county parks program that lacks community support, plus a mysterious economic development pool.

This proposed additional one-eighth cent countywide sales tax for six years lacks customary exemptions for food. As many readers realize, a flat sales tax effects low income residents disproportionately. If this and the new 3/4-cent state transportation sales tax pass, parts of town will be approaching 10 percent sales tax — a tipping point which drives more sales out-of-town or online, hurting our local economy, municipal tax coffers and poor people.

But Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill said "there is no plan B" and threatens the public if we vote no, he'll shut down the Events Center forever. Not so.

According to the Boone county fair website, Boone County residents have conducted a fair for nearly 180 years, on five fairgrounds locations, by six different organizing bodies. County neglect for the last decade and a half has put it down, but not out, and a hasty bailout now is not the only salvation imaginable for our long-living cultural event.

Advocates for this tax are not advertising that the county has parcels of unused land and vacant downtown office buildings that it is unwilling to sell one or two of to provide funds for the fairgrounds. Also not on the table is to initiate the next chapter in the fairgrounds history with real leadership to build a community-based nonprofit cooperative of perhaps the fair board, 4-H groups, FFA groups, equine enthusiasts and other caring citizens who are willing to take over and put the fairgrounds on a more financial, cultural, and politically sustainable path for the future. Other communities, including Audrain County, do this; we can, too.

A number of towns in Boone County already have parks of their own, including Centralia, Hallsville and obviously Columbia. In Columbia, leaders are acutely concerned about potential competition in voters' eyes with the city's 1/8-cent temporary parks sales tax renewal in November 2015. Particularly after a recent, umm, "tiff" over TIF and a plethora of utility and other public cost increases the City is having to ask voters to approve over the next year or so.

When Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas is not keen on a parks tax, something must be amiss. Even the Boone County Parks and Recreation Commission refused to support this proposal. What does that tell us?

The economic development piece is nebulous at best. Let's just say it is a safe bet that from such a secretive corporate-welfare honeypot, that primarily larger, politically-connected companies will get complex special deals. "Jobs," indeed.

In a healthy democracy, voters deserve better, more complete and balanced communications in order to make informed decisions about such important topics. Personally, I am voting no because I want the fairgrounds to instead emerge from this 15-year experiment of neglect and bankruptcy to a more community-based model. Citizens deserve a plan B.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM  from 5 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.

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Mike Martin July 24, 2014 | 5:53 p.m.

Mr. Spellman has the Fairgrounds issue exactly right. Boone County voters do deserve better than the political machine that runs County government.

They deserve better than the original decisions that led Boone County to purchase the Fairgrounds in the first place, including the payback of a $1 million loan to prominent developer Billy Sapp, creator of the Central Missouri Development Council:

Boone County voters deserve MUCH MORE transparency from the County Commission, especially regarding the budget:

We deserve fair property taxation from the County Assessor:

And we deserve a County government that's not stockpiling huge slush funds on the one hand, and vacant downtown property on the other:

Oh -- and most delightful of all: the Wal-Mart Laurie family owns all the land around the Fairgrounds. Guess how much that land will be worth once we foolish ol' taxpayers pony up $12-$18 million over the next six years for the fairgrounds.

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