NY governor awash in controversy over 25-cent cups of milk

ALBANY, N.Y.  — New York’s governor is finding out that, in politics, something as simple as a 25-cent cup of milk can turn sour fast.

Just last summer, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hailed as a hero for stepping in with a state subsidy to prevent a price hike to 50 cents for the popular cups of white and chocolate milk at New York State Fair’s beloved Milk Bar, which for generations has been a shrine to the state’s dairy industry complete with life-size people sculpted in butter.

But only half of the expected subsidy ever came through, and the nonprofit that’s been operating the Milk Bar on the Syracuse fairgrounds for 64 years announced it is pulling out and putting the blame squarely on Cuomo, saying it will only consider returning “if Cuomo is no longer governor.”

“Our group will lie dormant for the next 24 months to see if there is a change of administration in 2019,” Gary Raiti, president of New York State Dairy Exhibits Inc., told the group’s members in a recent letter.

Dairy Exhibits, which has kept the 7-ounce cups of milk at 25 cents since 1983, has long said it can’t pay its bills at that price.

Before the fair kicked off its 13-day end-of-summer run last year, state agriculture officials briefly approved the price hike to 50 cents. But when public objections were raised, Cuomo nixed it and instead promised $90,000 to help with expenses. A fair spokesman confirmed the state provided only about half that amount by putting the dairy building’s employees on the state payroll.

With the state refusing a milk-price hike or larger subsidy, Raiti said his organization is severing ties with the state and selling off the dairy building’s equipment.

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi did not respond to repeated requests for comment. For Cuomo, who some have speculated as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, the milk bar brouhaha is a controversy he didn’t need in the same week the Legislature was a week late in hammering out a $153 billion budget deal.

News of a possible shutdown of the Milk Bar prompted hundreds of comments on the website of the fairgrounds’ hometown newspaper, the Syracuse Post-Standard. Some bemoaned the loss of a beloved tradition. Some said even at 50 cents, the milk was a bargain. Some were mystified anyone would stand in line for milk.

And some questioned why the state couldn’t come up with the full $90,000 subsidy at a time when the governor has been touting a $70 million vision for an aerial gondola and other big projects to upgrade the New York State Fairgrounds.

In the end, fair officials say there’s no need to worry: The Milk Bar, cheese-carving booth and the rest of the dairy building’s delights will go on as always.

“We’ll hire a superintendent and operate this building just like we do dozens of others at the fair,” said fair spokesman Dave Bullard. “Our goal is to make sure when someone comes into the dairy building this year, it looks no different than last year.”

Troy Waffner, acting fair director, said the change will allow the state to modernize the building and possibly open the Milk Bar during events outside the fair’s end-of-summer run.

“We’d even like to get it back to being a ‘Rainbow Milk Bar,’ like it was years ago,” Waffner said. “We’d like to serve not only chocolate and white milk, but strawberry, mint, bacon and whatever else we can come up with.”

Sam Sampere, a 52-year-old physics professor at Syracuse University, who has been going to the fair since he was a kid, said he’d rather pay 50 cents for milk than have state taxpayers subsidize the cost. But he’s glad the Milk Bar will still be there.

“It’s just one of those goofy traditions you have to do at the fair,” Sampere said. “You have to get a baked potato. You have to get fried dough. And you have to get a cup of milk.”