The Hill County Fair Board again discussed whether it needs to change how food booths and vendors operate at the Great Northern Fairgrounds, and tabled the issue for another month to allow the fairground manager to do some more research.
Manager Tim Solomon told the board about several methods other fairgrounds in Montana use to reduce the fair board’s expenses during events — mainly an increase in the power bills for the grounds — and asked if the board would like to find out more about those options.
Board member Missy Boucher said she thought hearing more was a good plan.
“It might be wise to find out more about the way, the route to go, ” she said.
Solomon said he would call other fairs in the state to find out how they are handling vendors, both during their fairs and at outside events.
“We can put it off until next month with at least some food for thought as far as how we want to go then, ” he said.
The issue came to a head two months ago, when Solomon said some people had been told they would not be allowed to sell food at events when groups had rented the fairgrounds. A local 4-H club was invited to sell food at those events, and at least one other vendor was turned away.
Solomon said in June that if other vendors sold food at the events, the fair board would receive a percentage of their income.
The board allows 4-H to sell food during the Great Northern Fair without taking a commission, because Hill County 4-H owns its own building and pays its own electric bill and for the work the organization does during the fair.
This month’s meeting was much tamer than July’s — close to 30 people came to the vending discussion last month, while three non-board members came to the meeting Tuesday.
Solomon said one of his major concerns is the amount of power booths are using during the fair, and could be using during outside events. Other than the 4-H, the fair board pays for power used by food vendors during the fair and at outside events.
He said the bill from the middle of June to the middle of July — the billing period for power split during the middle of the Great Northern Fair this year — was $2,982, and he expects the next bill that will include the second half of the fair to be close to that amount.
The bill for the fairground outside of the fair is usually about $1,000, he said.
A suggestion raised at the last board meeting about outside events, charging an extra fee to allow the renter of the fairgrounds to select their own vendors, wouldn’t cover the cost if someone brings in ice machines or several freezers or refrigerators, Solomon said.
He said some fairs — citing Billings and Great Falls — have a checklist for what items will be used at a booth, and the daily fee charged depends on what is used.
“They put a value on everything that’s going to run that day, ” he said. “Which is a fair way, even for the fair it’s not a bad way. ”
He said that balances the power use — a booth using ice machines, refrigerators and fryers is using much more electricity than a booth using an outside barbecue grill.
“Some of why I’m liking that is everyone is showing up with ice machines now, and we’re paying power and not getting anything for it, ” he said.
He said those fairs also charge a percentage of vendors’ take at the event on top of the fees charged for items used.
“They just do that to recoup their power costs, ” Solomon said.
“You‘ve got to pay the power somehow, and make it fair to everyone, ” he added.
He said another option that some fairs are using is to provide the ice to the vendors, rather than having them use their own ice machines. The fairs deliver ice and take a percentage of the ice sold, which does away with onsite ice makers, Solomon said.
That would solve another problem, the increasing power use. Solomon said breakers blew several times during the fair due to the number of electrical machines vendors were using.
Michelle Gorecki, a 4-H club organizer, said she knows that some vendors also are shorting the fair board on the commission paid. While most vendors are honest and report their true income to the board, if more fees are charged, it could increase shorting the board, she said.
“It’s happening here, and it affects everybody, ” Gorecki said.
Solomon said some larger fairs have started issuing cash registers to the vendors so the take can be accurately recorded, with rewards offered if someone sees a booth worker not issuing a receipt. Companies rent machines to fairs for that purpose, he said.
“I don’t know that we need to go to that extreme yet, ” Solomon added. “I don’t feel that we are being ripped off to the point that we could afford cash registers, but as we grow (we could consider that). ”