Officials call for closer oversight

HANCOCK COUNTY — County officials recently decided to halt payments toward expenses for a new county fairgrounds, citing a need for more public oversight of tax dollars reserved for the project.

A divided Hancock County Board of Commissioners this week passed a resolution to prevent the Hancock County Tourism Commission — whose spending the commissioners oversee — from distributing funds to the nonprofit leading the project.

Commissioners Brad Armstrong and Marc Huber voted in favor of the resolution after expressing concerns that the nonprofit, which has led efforts for the past two years to build a new county fairgrounds, skirted an informal process designed to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently.

Commissioner Tom Stevens, who sits on the board of the nonprofit — called the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp. — voted against the resolution.

There is no written agreement detailing steps the nonprofit must take to gain approval for spending, but the commissioners made it clear when they formed the board in 2014 that they wanted members to run all expenses past them, Huber said.

The nonprofit board overseeing the project comprises seven members: Stevens and County Councilman Kent Fisk represent the county; utilities director Mike Fruth represents the city of Greenfield; Skip Kuker represents the Hancock Economic Development Council; Tom White and Darrin Couch represent the Hancock County Agricultural Association; and Dave Scott represents the visitor’s bureau.

During the past four months, the nonprofit has incurred $4,200 in bills from an engineering company after the company’s last study — which cost about $40,000 — provided plans for a $30 to $40 million project officials say could be cost-prohibitive.

The nonprofit board had asked the engineering firm to come up with several alternate proposals for the fairgrounds project, but the follow-up study was not approved by the commissioners.

The money for the initial study and the follow-up research was paid by the county’s innkeeper’s tax, which is charged to guests staying in local hotels and overseen by the tourism commission overseen by the county commissioners.

County officials agreed to allocate 1 percentage point of the innkeeper’s tax for the fairgrounds project — about $70,000 — but with the understanding that the commissioners should be kept apprised of how money is spent, Armstrong said.

The nonprofit’s failure to keep the commissioners informed about its expenses, coupled with the fairground project’s stalled progress, is alarming, Armstrong said.

The current proposal outlines plans to build the fairgrounds on 208 acres of county-owned farmland along U.S. 40 between county roads 400E and 500E. It would approximately double the size of the current fairgrounds, adding a multipurpose exposition center, two arenas and six rental barns. A large outdoor amphitheater, a grand gazebo and a sizeable retention pond are also part of the plans.

The resolution to halt further spending comes on the heels of a recent agreement by the commissioners to hold a roundtable discussion with key stakeholders from the 4-H Agriculture Association, which oversees operations at the current fairgrounds.

Armstrong, who suggested that meeting, said he hopes the commissioners can work with members to come up with several possible plans for the new fairgrounds.

A date for that meeting, which will be open to the public, has not yet been set.

Stevens, whose position as a member of the nonprofit board, along with Fisk, has been criticized by some community members as a conflict of interest, was the sole dissenting voice at this week’s meeting, arguing the decision to put spending on hold will likely damage the project’s chance of success. He called the resolution a roadblock.

But Huber and Armstrong agreed that there’s been an insufficient level of communication about the project, saying they feel out of the loop.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” Huber said.

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.