Pay study could lead to boost for Del Mar Fairgrounds managers

The agency that runs the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds has commissioned a study that local officials hope will convince the governor and other state leaders that fair executives and managers are underpaid, and their compensation should be increased.

Right now, the study is in draft form, but officials with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds, want to meet soon with their counterparts in Sacramento to discuss its findings, said Stephen Shewmaker, a 22nd DAA board member, who sits on a board committee dealing with employee compensation issues.

Shewmaker briefed his colleagues on the study, being conducted by a company called CPS, at the Aug. 11 board of directors meeting. The district paid $49,996 for the study. Officials of the 22nd DAA declined to release the study until it is final and state officials have reviewed it.

In an interview, Shewmaker said the 22nd DAA needs to think about succession planning in the event that General Manager Tim Fennell or other top managers leave the district, although Fennell said he has no plans to step down from the job he has held since 1993.

But Shewmaker said the current salary structure for the state agency would make it difficult to replace a manager of Fennell’s caliber, or others on the 22nd DAA management team.

“We at the DAA have not kept up with the times in terms of compensating senior executives in line with the responsibilities they have,” he said. “If we had to go through the market for replacement of senior staff … we wouldn’t be able to offer a competitive package. And that’s a concern of the board.”

According to the state controller’s website, which lists compensation information for state employees, the highest-paid employee at the 22nd DAA is Assistant General Manager Becky Bartling, who earned $158,430 in wages and $40,061 in benefits in 2013, the most recent year that data is available, for total compensation of $198,491.

Next is Fennell, whose 2013 salary was $143,925, with $39,713 in benefits for total compensation of $183,638. Third was chief financial officer Rita Walz, with $108,231 in salary and $30,473 in benefits, for total compensation of $138,704.

In comparison, the Orange County fair, which in 2014 had revenue of $37.7 million, or slightly more than half of the 22nd DAA’s $68 million in revenue, paid its general manager salary and benefits totaling $143,724 in 2013, according to the controller’s website.

Cal Expo, or the Sacramento County state fair, which posted revenue of $22.5 million last year, reportedly paid its general manager wages of $152,194, plus benefits of $10,737, for total compensation of $162,931, according to the state web site.

Fennell said a more apt comparison would be the Los Angeles County fair, which reported revenue of $71.8 million in 2014, slightly more than Del Mar’s. However, because the L.A. fair is run by a nonprofit and is not governed by state rules, its CEO was paid $894,533 in total compensation, according to the organization’s most recent IRS filing.

The San Diego Convention and Tourist Bureau, which had revenue of $22.2 million in 2013, paid its CEO a total of $380,244 that year, according to IRS filings.

“It’s not competitive. That’s probably the best way I can put it,” said Fennell of the state’s pay structure for fair officials.

Among the recommendations of the CPS study, said 22nd DAA officials, is that the state revamp its system for classifying fairs based on their annual revenue. Manager salaries are based on those classifications.

According to a Power Point presentation given at the meeting, there are seven classifications for fairs in California. Del Mar and four other fairs are included in the top classification, which is for fairs generating $10 million or more annually, designations that were established in 1989.

Under the proposed new rating system, there would be 10 classifications, with Del Mar and Los Angeles in the ninth ranking, leaving an open 10th ranking for future revenue growth.

Shewmaker and Fennell said the decision on whether to change the classification system and raise employee pay rests with the governor’s office, the state human resources department and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“What I’m hoping is they will expand the number of classifications. And that the compensation levels will reflect that, not only for the CEO but for all the key people in the organization. It’s a team effort,” Fennell said.

Frederick Schenk, 22nd DAA board president, said the managers who run major events such as the annual San Diego County Fair are “woefully undercompensated.” He said the board has been working for several years to find a way to improve pay for executives and managers.

“That’s really what I want to see, that we continue to provide the best product,” Schenk said. “To do that, we need the best people, and in order to do that we need to compensate them well.”