ELIZABETHTOWN - There won't be a beer tent at the Essex County Fair this year.
The full county Board of Supervisors voted 11-6 against a resolution to let the Essex County Agricultural Society, which runs the fair, sell beer there The annual event takes place at the county-owned fairgrounds in Westport.
"I've never had a problem making a decision," said Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston. "After hearing from people, I'm not so sure I'm convinced it's such a good idea."
Preston said he was originally in favor of letting the Agriculture Society's board of directors operate the beer tent this year on a trial basis. He ended up voting against the measure.
Several supervisors echoed Preston's comments about how difficult the decision was. Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said he received more phone calls about the beer tent resolution than any other issue to come before the board in recent years - including the potential sale of the Horace Nye Nursing Home.
The resolution was introduced by Westport town Supervisor Dan Connell. He said members of the fair board didn't expect the proposal to be so controversial.
Connell, who chairs the Board of Supervisors' Fair Committee and serves as the board's representative on the Agriculture Society board, said the county must do whatever it can to increase revenue for the fair. He said the fair also needs to attract more visitors so the county can hire a better carnival operator.
Seven thousand people attended the fair last year, Connell said. That needs to top 10,000 before other carnival operators will even talk to the county, he said.
"The fair board was looking for an opportunity to attract more people and bring in more revenue," Connell said. "Next year, people are going to be yelling and screaming at the fair board when the rates go up. We're trying to find a way to keep it an affordable fair for families."
Connell said 90 percent of the people who talked to him about the beer sales proposal "have never been to the fairgrounds."
Before Monday's vote, Robin Severance of Westport urged the board to keep the fair alcohol-free.
"I grew up going to the fair," she said. "I remember the impact the beer tent had on the fair. I hope my children never have to see that.
"When you vote yes, your yes vote means yes, you're OK with taking chances with peoples' lives; you're OK that we have to increase the amount of coverage we receive from the sheriff's department," Severance said. "I beg of you to consider the repercussions. Why can't Essex County be about family and supporting them and maintaining abstinence?"
Supervisors had asked District Attorney Kristy Sprague and Sheriff Richard Cutting for input on the measure before making a decision. Cutting previously said that he didn't want to tell the board what to do, but he did say his department would need to step up patrols if the county allowed beer sales.
District Attorney Kristy Sprague told supervisors that Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward was also concerned about the plan. Sprague said when Sayward served as a 4-H leader, she would spend the night in the dairy barns with the kids. That was about 30 years ago, when the fair sold beer.
"She would sleep with a pitchfork when the beer tent was operating," Sprague said. "That's a concern from a public safety standpoint."
Sayward said it was actually some of the older 4-H boys who would keep pitchforks close by. Sayward, who served as Willsboro town supervisor and chairwoman of the board before moving to the Assembly, said she thinks the board made the right decision.
Sayward said 4-H members stayed overnight at the dairy barns so they could milk and clean the cows before shows the following day.
"With the liability that comes with serving alcohol on the grounds, I think they made a good vote today," she said. "That's the mother and the grandmother in me."
Cutting said if the board let the fair operate beer tents, he would have increased his officer presence from four to six. That would translate to about 120 hours in overtime pay, costing the county about $4,000.
Moriah town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava questioned whether the beer tent would bring in enough money to offset the additional overtime. Scozzafava also asked whether the county could provide money from its STOP-DWI fund to help fair planners with mounting costs.
County Attorney Dan Manning said under current rules, the STOP-DWI funds can't be directed toward the fair.
Connell said he was concerned that some people have made comments implying the fair board didn't care about kids and they were offering up the beer tent simply to make money.
"This fair is about the kids," Connell said. "That's a group of 15 people who put their life and soul into this. They had no idea this was going to cause such a controversy. They do not agree that this will have a negative impact on young people."