OBERLIN — The Decatur County fair wrapped up Saturday, and volunteers will dismantle the rides of what is said to be the state’s oldest home-owned carnival.
But it’s possible the Ferris wheel, the octopus, tilt-a-whirl and other rides might not come out of storage next year.
A new state law imposing tighter regulations on amusement park rides could prove too costly for the carnival — and others throughout northwest Kansas — to continue, organizers said.
Legislators are hoping to work with the Kansas Department of Labor to ease the requirements or even make changes to the law in the 2018 legislative session to keep the carnivals running.
The Kansas Amusement Ride Act was created in response to the death of Caleb Schwab nearly a year ago while riding the Verrückt, a 17-story water slide at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City. The 10-year-old was the son of Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe. Two northwest Kansas women who were riding with the boy also were injured in the accident.
Schwab did not sponsor the bill, but spoke in favor of it on the House floor.
Signed into law in April and taking effect July 1, the act specifies rides must be inspected each year prior to operation by a licensed engineer with specified qualifications and increases the required insurance coverage from $1 million to $2 million.
After concerns were raised that carnivals would be unprepared to meet the requirements this year, the Legislature passed a trailer bill in June delaying the criminal offenses portion of the bill.
“Until they moved the date to Jan. 1, we were kind of on the bubble of not knowing what to do,” said Carrie Morford of the Decatur County Amusement Authority.
The Rush County Amusement Co. had its rides inspected last week prior to the start of its fair Wednesday, said Duane Moeder, fair board president.
“We feel we have very safe rides, but by the same token, they are older rides,” he said of the local carnival that started approximately 15 years ago.
“We’re worried about what it’s going to cost us to either upgrade our rides to come into compliance or what a new ride is going to cost,” he said.
No matter what the costs, Moeder said, the group is determined to keep its carnival going.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep it going, because we do have a great small carnival here,” he said.
In Decatur County, the carnival authority’s only revenue is from the 50-cent tickets sold during the carnival’s five nights. The authority pays a 7.5-percent commission to the Decatur County Fair Board to store the rides and games in the fair buildings, sales tax to the state and insurance premiums.
“Last year, after all our bills had been paid, we only made $4,500 because our insurance kills us,” Morford said.
The authority’s insurance company required the increase in insurance this year, so that cost increased from $12,000 to $20,000.
“The insurance alone, not figuring what inspection fees and that kind of stuff will be, we’ll lose our carnival,” said Shayla Williby, Decatur County economic development director. “We can’t financially afford to continue doing it if we have to add all those expenses. It’s not feasible.”
It’s for that reason alone Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said he voted against the act, one of only two senators to do so. Eleven of the 14 counties in Billinger’s 40th Senate District of northwest Kansas have home-owned carnivals.
He said that at his first read of the bill, he realized it went too far.
“I knew it was going to cause some problems,” he said.
“Small, home-owned carnivals are different from the traveling carnivals that might be in Hays one day, Kearney, Neb., the next and Wichita the day after that,” he said.
“We all want to make sure rides are safe, but I feel like we went too far.”
Billinger said the Senate vote was “a straight up-and-down vote,” with no debate that didn’t give him much opportunity to point out how the bill would affect the smaller carnivals, and even the state fair and municipal pools with slides.
“As time goes on, the facts are being revealed,” he said.
Rep. Adam Smith, R-Weskan, said the vote was his one regret of the legislative session. The six counties of the 120th District overlap with Billinger’s district, and each has a carnival.
“It was one of those gut-and-goes, and nobody really understood what it was,” he said.
Smith said he asked questions about the bill and was assured the local carnivals would only have to pay for some permits and registration fees.
“After we voted, I got to reading into it a little more and realized that was not the case,” he said.
With the law in place, Smith said he has been making an effort to visit with the associations overseeing home-owned carnivals in his district to help them understand the law. The specifications on inspectors were especially misunderstood, he said.
“The way the law is written is, someone local can actually become certified to inspect these rides. We won’t have to hire somebody out of Denver or Kansas City or Wichita to come out and look at these things,” he said.
That’s a big relief in Decatur County, where both Billinger and Smith visited this week with the amusement authority, Morford said.
“We just didn’t know where we were going to find an inspector, and then once you get an inspector, what’s it going to cost to get them here. If we can get someone that’s locally certified or even piggyback onto another community that’s got someone locally certified, that’s just a whole lot easier for everyone,” she said.
The Decatur County carnival has been self-inspected, Morford said, and points out there never has been a ride-related injury in its 44 years of operation.
“In fact, the reason they started this fair was because there was a lack of safety with the carnivals that would travel through,” Williby said. “This way, they felt like they had control of keeping everybody safe and to keep it affordable.”
Volunteers put in approximately 600 hours of service preparing the rides and overseeing them during the fair, Morford said.
“Everybody that puts it together has been there for several years and knows those machines inside and out. So it’s not like we’re just flipping the switch and turning them on,” she said.
“These guys are so safety-focused,” Williby said. “You can be standing talking to these gentlemen and ladies on the midway, and they’re so in tune with the rides that if they hear something that maybe needs a little tweaking, they’re off to do it.”
Smith attributes some of the confusion from the fact the Department of Labor has not even written up the rules and regulations. That also was part of the reason for the trailer bill, he said.
The Labor Department will have a public hearing Sept. 7 on the regulations.
“Once those are adopted, we need to take a look at them and see if the local carnivals can live with that or if there’s changes we need to try and make in the legislation,” he said.
Billinger said he already has begun work to revisit the law in January when the Legislature convenes.
“We will make some adjustments in January. Either we will exclude home-owned carnivals or make separate rules for them,” he said.
While Morford said she was grateful for the legislators clarifying aspects of the law, she is still concerned about the insurance.
“We just can’t afford our insurance,” she said. “You have your breakdowns and things, and that stuff comes first. We are a non-profit, but we’ve got to make a little something.”
Losing that “little something” actually would be big for the community, Williby said. The amusement authority donates its profits to other community organizations.
“So it recirculates at least a couple of times in our community,” she said.
In addition, the carnival is an economic boon to Oberlin, Williby said.
“Not only does it bring back the locals who have graduated or moved to other places, it also brings people from Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas that come here to spend their vacation,” she said.
If the carnival is lost, she said, it will affect businesses that provide lodging, gas and food as well.
“It’s just a domino effect, and it’s not a good one,” she said.