Orange County Fair Officials could raise ticket prices for next year’s fair, which staff are blaming on increasing minimum wage and looming employee pension costs the agency will soon have to pay off.

The OC Fair last year saw a total attendance of 1.4 million people, with total food revenues of nearly $30 million and ride revenues of around $15 million.

By comparison, the San Diego and Los Angeles county fairs both saw fewer food and ride revenues that year despite having higher ticket prices, said the newly-appointed OC Fair and Events Center CEO Michele Richards at the Fair Board’s Thursday public meeting.

Still, staff brought forward a few different scenarios in which fair officials could impose the price increases, some of which involved raising ticket prices for adult admission by as much as $2 from $12 to $14 on weekdays and $1 from $14 to $15 on the weekends.

An increase in parking fees would be another possible way to offset increasing operating costs, staff said. Increasing the parking rate by a dollar would mean a difference of around $187,000 in extra revenue.

Richards after the meeting reasoned that “it’s been awhile” since the last time Fair Board directors approved the last set of ticket price increases in 2016.

When asked after the meeting whether the fair agency could make up for rising labor and pension costs by drawing from other areas of the agency’s 2020 fiscal year budget — which is set to see around $50 million in revenue and got approved by the Board of Directors Thursday — Richards said “It’s always a possibility, and those decisions are up to the Board of Directors.”

“We presented a very conservative, lean budget,” she said, pointing out that while revenues for the new budget will push $50 million, fairgrounds spending is set to bring the agency’s net proceeds down to around $1.6 million.

Richards called the rising minimum wage and pension contribution costs “a huge factor” in the budget.

“If you think about our workforce, it’s mainly hourly employees,” she said.

She added: “We’re going to pay $1.8 million more for labor this year than we did last year, despite the fact that we made some labor cuts, so it’s not going to take long before the margin shrinks.”

Direct spending by fairgrounds staff is budgeted at $46 million for next year, with the bulk of it — $20 million — coming from the total payroll for fair workers and agency staff.

Out of 25 fairs and expos reported by this State Controller database, the OC Fair is the second highest-paying agricultural district in terms of salaries for agency officials, churning out around $6.6 million in total salaries, with almost $3 million in total retirement and health contributions.

At the top of the list is the San Diego County Fair, which counts total salaries for fair officials at nearly $20 million, with $5 million in total retirement and health contributions.

Richards maintained the price increases are “nominal,” and aimed at people who decide to go to the fair “spur-of-the-moment” and are willing to pay the full price of a ticket, and that for low-income families, the fair still has a number of special discount programs they can try to take advantage of, such as half-price admission on the weekends in the morning hours.

While Richards said her goal is to make the fair “accessible to all,” to continue the fair “we have to ask everybody to give a little — our partners, our guests — to make sure we keep this wonderful event going.”

It’s unclear what other partners to the fair, such as vendors or contractors, are giving in the New Year.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @photherecord.

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