Del Mar fair board approves award of $500 gift cards to employees


The agency that operates the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds expects to spend $70,000 to $75,000 on a program to reward its employees for their hard work under a proposal approved unanimously Tuesday, Feb. 10, by the agency’s board of directors.

Under the Superior Accomplishment Award Program, each of the agency’s 172 permanent employees is eligible to receive a gift card worth up to $500 for his or her work at the fairgrounds in 2014.

The program is the same one suspended in 2012, when officials with the California Department of Food and Agriculture said they were concerned the awards did not comply with state regulations.

But Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds, said the situation has changed since 2012.

“There was a sensitivity because of the financial challenges the state was facing. Now the governor has us back on track,” Fennell said.

In a report to the board, Fennell pointed to the district’s financial performance as justification for the award program. In 2014, he said, the district had revenue of just under $70 million, plus another $30 million or more from horse racing income. The district’s net revenue last year, or revenue over expenses, was $2.09 million, or $1.4 million over budget.

That success, he said, is due to the work of fairgrounds staff.

“You won’t find another fairgrounds in California or possibly North America that can claim (those results),” Fennell said. “You treat people fair and square and recognize their efforts and they will give you 110 percent.”

While managers will decide which employees will receive the gift cards, which will be for gasoline or retail stores, Fennell said he expects most of the district’s eligible workers to get the full amount. Neither Fennell nor deputy GM Becky Bartling are eligible for the awards.

Fennell will write a letter to the CDFA officials to let them know about the board’s action, and asking them to let the 22nd DAA know of any objections.

“It’s not going to be a situation where we ask forgiveness, we’re going to be asking for permission,” said Fred Schenk, the board’s president, in an interview before the meeting.

But Schenk said he believes employees deserve the acknowledgment of their work.

“We view this as an opportunity to express our appreciation in a nominal way,” Schenk said. “For reaching beyond the goals we set for them.”

In an email, Steve Lyle, a spokesman for CDFA, said Feb. 10 the agency didn’t have enough information about the proposal to respond to a reporter’s inquiry about it.

According to Fennell’s report, the 22nd DAA received approval of the program from CDFA in 1998, and the program was in place from 1999 through 2007. No awards were given in 2008 due to the Great Recession and a steep decline in revenue at the 22nd DAA. The program resumed in 2009 and 2010, but was suspended for two years in early 2012 at the request of CDFA.

The 22nd DAA board approved a resumption of the program in 2014, based on the district’s financial performance in 2013. Although the district notified the CDFA, the district did not receive any objections last year, 22nd DAA officials said.

Fennell told the board he hopes to distribute this year’s awards to employees within the next 30 days, pending a response from the CDFA.