By Lois Henry
Sending the Kern County Junior Livestock Committee, Inc. a curt "hit the road, Jack" letter to sever a more than 20-year partnership was more than a bit harsh.
But that's exactly what the Kern County Fair Board did in March without any prior discussions with the private, non-profit Livestock Committee, whose work had resulted in one of the most successful junior livestock auctions in the state.
Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
The junior livestock auction is the finale of the fair's livestock show.
The top four animals in each species must go to auction. Every child who enters livestock to show can sell one animal, unless he or she has multiple champions. Then all of those champions must be sold.
Each fair throughout the state conducts its auctions differently.
Kern's auction includes live bidding as well as donations and pledges solicited prior to the auction, which are treated as live bids.
All of that money comes from "buyers," typically a child's relatives, parents' business contacts or friends.
"It's confusing for those who haven't been involved," acknowledged Jan Thomson, long time president of the Kern County Junior Livestock Committee, Inc., a private, non-profit group which, until recently, had run the auction for the fair. The fair is taking over operations this year.
Children begin looking for buyers over the summer, Thomson said.
A child can get multiple buyers for each animal but must know which buyer is in charge of the disposition of the animal. That person is called the "true buyer" and decides whether the animal will go home live or be sent to slaughter.
All other buyers listed by the child are called "add ons."
Under the livestock committee's rules, no extra add-ons were allowed once the sale was complete. But the fair will allow add-ons even after the auction.
Also, the fair for the first time this year is allowing people to change the disposition of the animal after the final auction gavel.
Some children aren't able to find buyers before the auction.
But Thomson said there are several companies and individuals in town that regularly come to the auction to make live bids so those children without buyers also get good prices for their animals.
Outsider don't know which bids are live and which are pledges.
Once all the money is collected that was promised by buyers or live bids, the child gets a check for 95 percent of the full amount. The livestock committee kept 5 percent to pay the costs of putting on the auction.
The fair has promised to keep the split at 95/5 this year.
The move has engendered bad feelings among many loyal junior livestock supporters and created needless confusion and worry for the parents and kids who work hard each year to participate in the fair.
Not to mention that the action came at the same time an audit revealed that the fair was more than $200,000 short in some accounts due to some seriously lackadaisical bookkeeping.
All of which has also prompted suspicions that the fair board sees the junior livestock auction, which brought in $1.2 million last year, as nothing more than a cash cow (no pun intended.)
Frankly, the whole thing is a mess and I would urge Fair CEO Michael Olcott to make amends and find a way to better ease the auction's transition to fair management.
That could be difficult at this point given several actions fair officials have already taken, including co-opting a database listing hundreds of private donors, their contact information and their payment histories.
The database belonged to the Livestock Committee and was jealously guarded because it contained such private information, said Jan Thomson, president of the Livestock Committee.
"We used that information to help kids find buyers if they couldn't find them on their own," she said (see sidebar for explanation of a "buyer"). "But we never, never, never gave that information to anyone, including the fair."
Olcott told me the situation was a little "dicey" because, according to the fair's contract with the Livestock Committee, any equipment, property or assets purchased using auction funds belong to the fair.
Besides, he said, a Livestock Committee employee had given the fair the 2004 and 2011 databases along with the committee's financial statements earlier this year, so he didn't understand why concerns were being raised now.
Two things: that information wasn't purchased, it was collected over many years, so I'd say it doesn't fall under that tenet of the contract. And Thomson said financials are given to the fair every month, per the contract, but never the buyer database.
"That absolutely did not happen and I don't know why he's telling people it did," Thomson said.
She said she and other committee members have heard from many buyers who were flummoxed and more than a little put out when they got letters from the fair in mid-April saying the fair was taking over the auction, and oh by the way, they'd be sending the money solicitations early this year.
No one is disputing the fair's right to take back the auction and cancel its contract with the Livestock Committee, Thomson said.
"But the way it was handled was so back door," she said.
Had her committee known this was the direction the fair wanted to go, they would have been happy to have their volunteers work with fair officials during the next auction to help smooth the transition.
Not needed, said Olcott. The fair will have a whole new set of volunteers this year and he insisted he will not have to hire extra full-time staff for the auction.
He also promised to keep the split at 95/5, meaning the kids will continue to get 95 percent of the proceeds from their animals and 5 percent will go back to the fair to run the auction.
Some fairs take a higher cut, up to 7 percent, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees the Division of Fairs and Expositions. The fear is that will happen here.
I asked Olcott if the Kern County fair took over the auction to make more money and his response was: "A little bit."
Mostly, though he wanted to create more programs for kids, bring in more animals species such as llamas and ostriches and provide more scholarships.
Besides, he said, it was his understanding the livestock committee was struggling to keep costs at 5 percent.
Not true, Thomson said.
In fact, even through the worst part of the recession, auction sales continued to increase slightly. So they were always able to pay their costs with the 5 percent and even had a little roll over every year, which they will be giving back to the fair now.
Thomson found it ironic that Olcott would try to cast doubt on the Livestock Committee's financial health considering the fair's recent audit that showed some accounts hadn't been reconciled going back at least to 2009.
Olcott acknowledged the audit turned up some serious problems, such as money listed as coming in that hadn't and no accountability over swap meet revenues.
He has since hired an organization called the California Fair Service Authority to do the books going forward. Problems noted in the audit have been corrected and after covering the losses with savings, they're solidly in the black, he said.
"The fair is very healthy," according to Olcott. "Other than the overstated revenue."
So, yes, he said, he does expect the fair to make some money by taking over the auction. But they aren't doing it to cover a hole in the budget.
He envisioned an excellent auction this year and felt the management transition would be seamless.
Given the frayed feelings, confusion and outright anger I encountered, I highly doubt that.
Clearly there is bad blood here. But all the adults have a whole summer to mend fences.
That would be an excellent example to set for the children who have some crazy notion that the junior livestock auction is about, well, the children.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail email@example.com