Fifteen minutes isn’t enough time to get to know a guy. And my first question during a short meeting with Fair Manager John Steffanic probably wasn’t appropriate.
“Are you crazy?” I asked.
Steffanic just laughed. He laughs a lot. They are the sort of belly laughs that make you think he doesn’t take things too seriously.
The reason for my question was to hopefully understand why Steffanic would figuratively jump on a grenade to save the Plumas-Sierra County Fair.
He agreed to take a 50 percent pay cut to balance the fair’s budget and keep the fairground keys in his pocket until next year.
Steffanic is giving up more than $40,000. Forty Thousand Dollars!
That’s a lot of money. That’s two new cars. Or half a house these days.
I’m still new enough in town that I figured I must be missing something. There had to be more to this. People like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates can absorb 50 percent pay cuts. Not a guy in charge of a rural county fair.
So I visited Steffanic on his home field (the fairgrounds) right in the middle of his version of the Super Bowl (Day 2 of the fair).
Steffanic was busy directing volunteers when I arrived unannounced. But he dropped everything and invited me into his closet-sized office.
What I learned about John in 15 minutes is that he is pretty passionate about everything.
The longtime businessman, who currently owns Sierra Promotions in Portola, admits he has more to learn when it comes to managing a government entity like the fairgrounds. There are lots of rules, laws, protocol ... politics.
OK, I get that. But Forty Thousand Clams?! And no more of those comfy county benefits?
John ... What’s the catch?
“I have a dream job,” Steffanic said, not laughing this time. “I’ve been coming to this fair since I was 8 years old.
“Now I get to see people I’ve seen and known my whole life. I get to host them at a party. They all get to come to my house and I get to have a party for them. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
I can imagine it is. But is it worth a FORTY THOUSAND DOLLAR pay cut? And no bennies?
“Not that it’s not important for me, but I’ve never had insurance before. I’ve never had health insurance, I’ve never had a retirement,” Steffanic said.
“I’m still not over my perspective as a businessman of the disparity between what I make, or what county employees make, compared to what the average taxpayer is making in this county.
“When the median income for an individual here is 20-some thousand, I’m guessing, and government workers are making what they are making ... I’m almost kind of embarrassed at that.”
Steffanic tried to emphasize that he is by no means a saint or martyr or do-gooder. And he knows taking a 50 percent cut isn’t going to make him too popular with other county department managers.
But he said people need to understand that he feels a strong loyalty to the fair and his two-person staff of Oran Morrison and Kathy Tedford. They will each take 10 percent pay cuts.
Along with Steffanic, Tedford received a layoff notice from the county just days before the fair’s opening.
Steffanic said the county’s timing was insensitive, at the very least.
“If you owned a restaurant, you wouldn’t fire your chef and then say ‘Hey, I’m going to need you this weekend to cook for this big event we’ve got coming in.’ No, you don’t do that.
“But (Morrison and Tedford) rallied. They were a little irritated, but they showed up to work. And we are working 18- to 20-hour days right now.”
Even though I spent most of the interview asking Steffanic about his pay cut, he sincerely didn’t want to talk about it.
And he didn’t want to talk politics. He wanted to praise Morrison and Tedford. He wanted to talk about the future of the fair and trying to stimulate the depressed Plumas County economy.
Steffanic is not bitter. He is optimistic. Maybe too optimistic.
He firmly believes that the state cutting funding to county fairs was a political power play by Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at rural, Republican counties.
“I think by next year we are going to have fair funding again. I really do,” Steffanic said.
Steffanic said large fairs in big counties make a lot of profit. They aren’t hurt by the state cuts like the small fairs.
So what if a bigger fair wanted to hire Steffanic? He admitted he gets email inquiries from other counties.
“I would rather work for half the wages and make sure that there is a fair (here),” he said. “And if somebody else offers me a fair in some undesirable place for even my regular wages (before the 50 percent cut) I would probably skip it.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I do think I’m nuts.”
What if they offered $100,000?
“... Yeah, I’m probably going to jump on something like that.”
OK. That’s what I needed to hear. The man does care about money after all.
“Make no mistake, I need money. I mean everyone who does know me knows that I have done OK, but I’ve had my rough times.”
Steffanic was still smiling when our 15 minutes were over. He even thanked me after taking up his valuable time.
As we were walking out the door, the lowest-paid fair manager in the state asked one favor of me.
“Don’t make the story gushy. I’m serious,” he said.