Norwich officials clash over ice rink's future

Norwich - The controversy over the future of the Norwich Municipal Ice Rink spilled into the Ice Rink Authority meeting Thursday with a heated debate over how to convince the City Council to support spending $680,000 to replace the failed cooling system.

Without that support, the rink will close on July 1, authority Chairman and City Council President pro tempore Francois "Pete" Desaulniers said.

"Come the 21st, if that ordinance doesn't pass, these doors are closed. It's done." Desaulniers said.

The council will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. on April 21 on the proposed ordinance to spend the $680,000 to replace the cooling system and replace and upgrade other equipment.

But Alderman Mark Bettencourt, a rink authority member, angered other authority members by separately proposing that the city put out a request for proposals for an outside firm to take over rink operations and lease the facility from the city for an annual fee.

Other authority members accused Bettencourt of "betrayal" and working behind their backs without bringing the matter first to the authority for discussion. They also complained that the rift will appear to the public as if the authority is not unanimous about saving the rink.

Bettencourt insisted that he made the proposal to seek lease bids in order to save the rink. He said he feared that there would not be enough support on the City Council for the spending ordinance if the city didn't also try to find a new management company to take over all operations.

Authority members were united against Bettencourt in that opinion, but by the end of the 2½-hour meeting, the authority voted unanimously to support the RFP, many members saying they felt they had no choice.

The RFP is expected to be submitted to the City Council at the April 7 meeting, but responses likely wouldn't come in until after the April 21 public hearing and possible vote.

Bettencourt said many residents and some aldermen believe the city shouldn't keep subsidizing the rink, and $680,000 would bring the total debt to the city to over $1 million. Authority members, however, insisted that the rink was on its way to financial recovery when the mechanical failures hit.

City Comptroller Josh Pothier affirmed that position but issued an equally bleak report Thursday about the potential future of the rink.

Pothier said the rink authority should curtail all spending and not enter into any new contracts "unless and until" the City Council votes to approve the spending ordinance.

Pothier sent a letter with detailed financial recommendations for the rink authority to City Manager Alan Bergren, Mayor Deberey Hinchey, the City Council and the rink authority, saying the city is in an "awkward position" as the city determines the future of the rink.

If the council rejects the $680,000 to replace the cooling system and replace and upgrade other rink equipment and the rink is forced to close, then the city will have to absorb the rink's debt - called the interfund balance - expected to top $600,000 by June 30, with no way to recover the money.

"It is regrettable to have to put this into such stark terms," Pothier wrote. "If we determine that the Ice Rink Authority is no longer a going concern, the interfund balance will need to be reclassified as an expenditure of the general fund, which will have a substantial impact on the (city's) fund balance."

The rink has lost money every year since it opened 20 years ago, and catastrophic mechanical failures have compounded the problem.

The aging ammonia-based chiller malfunctioned and caused an ammonia leak a year ago, and the system failed completely last May.

A temporary outdoor chiller hooked up in October is costing the authority $30,000 per month, consuming all profits from the increased hockey, figure skating and public skating activities since the rink reopened.

c.bessette@theday.com

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