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County Attorney to review fairgrounds practices

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The fate of the Hernando County Fairgrounds Association came up for discussion at the July 13, 2021 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting.  Lead by Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, the discussion involved members of the Fairgrounds Association, parents and county attorneys.  There was no vote on the matter, however the board consensus was that the County Attorney’s office will review the matters discussed and choose the appropriate action.

Holcomb began by thanking those “who have been pitbulls on this topic,” parents whose children auction livestock at the county fair.  “For 9 years, we’ve read articles and heard stories about the problems at the fairgrounds, reports of mismanagement of finances and we’ve watched the buildings dilapidate over the years.”

He reported that $64,000 in county funds has been given to the Fair Association, $17,000 from a tourism grant, and the county paid the water bill for the years 2008-2012.  Earlier this year, the City of Brooksville condemned the building which hosts the livestock auctions, however the required repairs seem to have been made.

“This year, it took (the Fair Association) two-and-a-half months to pay the kids,” Holcomb said, reminding the board and citizens that the attendees do not get paid upon the end of the auction.  “They charge those kids $10,000 in (marketing) fees, and to our knowledge, they did no marketing for them.”

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Holcomb stated he would like to see the county move on from the current management of the fairgrounds.

Holcomb concluded his opening statements by introducing Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben, who had acquired a Performance Agreement between the county and Fair Association  dated May 27,2008, as well as multiple documents pertaining to the debt that the fairgrounds have incurred over the years.

Jouben reported that on May 6, 2008, the BOCC agreed to transfer the title of the fairgrounds to the Fair Association for no cost.  At that time, the board only required the performance agreement to which the Fair Association must comply.  Part of the performance agreement was the professional development of a Master Plan, which was supposed to be completed and approved by the BOCC by the end of 2008.

Further requirements of the agreement were regular updates to the BOCC regarding the development and construction of the fairgrounds in accordance with the Master Plan, including the state of construction and the resulting expenses.  The board further stipulated that the Fair Association would limit the amount of debt incurred or mortgage to $50,000, adjusted every 3 years for inflation.

“We have no real knowledge that the fair has complied with the performance agreement,” Jouben said.  According to minutes provided by the Fair Association,  they solicited bids for a professional planner on May 28, 2008.  In August of 2008, the Fair Association board voted to complete the master plan in-house. Jouben added that on Apr 15, 2021, a $100,000 line of credit was secured on the fairground property.  The Fair Association took an initial draw of $50,000.  The maximum allowable adjusted for 2021 dollars is $58,000.

Later in the meeting, members of the Fair Association reported that the loan amount was actually for $50,000.  It was secured to cover the cost of current repairs to the barn and Lonnie Coburn Park, which was rented from the county, however recently returned.

Commissioner Steve Champion first asked, “Why wasn’t this caught earlier?”  According to County Attorney Garth Coller, section 10 of the Performance Agreement stipulates that failure of one party to comply does not absolve the other from fulfilling the requirements.  Because the county failed to check on the progress since 2008, the Fair Association was still bound to meet the them.

To remedy the situation, Jouben suggested that the county Attorney’s office request documentation of compliance from the Fair Association and report back to the BOCC with any findings, or investigate legal action should the Fair Association refuse to produce the documentation.

During public comment, farm owner and candidate for School Board, (District 5) Monty Floyd read from documentation obtained that outlined the proposed master plan beginning from 2008.  According to Floyd, item 4 of the performance agreement states, “In addition, the county agrees to appoint one of the commissioners to serve on the board of directors for the fair.”  Currently, there are no sitting commissioners on the fair board, however Champion stated that he has been invited to the last two board meetings.

Floyd continued, adding that the Fair Association had failed to meet any of the phases outlined in the initial 2008 Master Plan.  Phase 2 planned for the development of a Civic Arena, which should have been completed by 2010.  Phase 3 development was to start in 2010.  Phase 4 – remove old auditorium building, install parking.  Phase 5 – covers the main arena and practice arena, Phase 6 layed out the development of the midway area, to be completed in 2016.  Phase 7 beginning in 2018 promised to re-evaluate the plan for the needs of the community.

Following public comment, Hernando Fair Association board member Susan Stringer and  Operations Manager Richard Klimas addressed the board.  Klimas is not a member of the board.

Stringer explained the procedure buyers and sellers face after the livestock auctions.  Each buyer is presented with an invoice and add-on invoice at the conclusion of the sales.  Stringer reported that buyers have 30 days to pay the invoices.  Furthermore, she reported that the sellers sign a contract at the beginning of the fair acknowledging that sellers are not paid until all buyers’ payments have been received.

Stringer also reported that review of checks to sellers issued over that past 8 years have been between June and July.

Klimas addressed the topic of financial malfeasance, highlighting a report by Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO).  He stated that the shoddy paperwork discovered by HCSO was produced prior to his tenure, and that of his wife, Shari Klimas, and current members of the board.

Klimas admitted that upon their arrival to their positions, the fair was in “horrible shape.”  He stated that he began working on improvements in his early days and continues to do so.

Regarding the Master Plan, Klimas reports that one was completed by a planning company called Populous.  In 2014, a civic center and amphitheater were attempted, however was interrupted due to an investigation that began, allegedly due to a dispute with a tree company.

“We’re willing to work with anyone to build whatever they want, but we have to get the funding,” Kilmas said.  He reported working for 2 years to get funding secured to repair the currently defunct horse barn, however has been denied.  The COVID-19 pandemic also interfered with this project.

Champion asked again why the BOCC has not yet received computer files containing financial information. Klimas answered that the Fair Association Treasurer was scheduled to attend this meeting, however had not appeared.  He added that he will provide this file by the week ending July 16, 2021.

The reported company that produced the Master Plan can be found at: https://populous.co

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