Ice rink closure led to red ink in Norwich

Norwich - The monthlong closure of the ice rink erased a nearly $40,000 projected profit through March, turning it into a $98,000 loss and leaving some aldermen skeptical that the rink can recover the money through insurance claims on the Feb. 13 mechanical failure.

The Ice Rink Authority presented its 2013-14 budget to the City Council late Monday. Much of the discussion centered on costs associated with the mechanical failure that closed the rink for a month and contributed to the resignation of former rink director Mia Sanca.

The ice rink had been operating with annual financial deficits for the past decade and needed loan subsidies from the city. Alderman and rink authority Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers told the council the authority planned to start repaying the debt, but then the cooling system failed on Feb. 13.

According to the city finance office, the rink lost $98,643 in March alone, erasing the pre-closure budgeted expected surplus of $38,366 through March and adding to the debt the rink now owes the city. That figure is now $328,296 through March 31.

Authority members Cheryl Ritacco and Joann Beguhl presented the budget to the council, projecting a $15,400 profit to be turned over to the city.

"From this time on, it's not costing the city anything," Desaulniers said.

Beguhl said this year's projected deficit is misleading, because there is an obvious problem with the rink's utility bill for March. The March utility bill totaled $11,000 - the same total for the busiest month, with ice-cooling equipment running at full capacity. There was no ice on the floor during the closure, and the equipment was shut down. Norwich Public Utilities is reviewing the bill.

While authority members hoped the city's insurance company would cover much of the loss from the closure, others were skeptical. Alderman and Democratic mayoral candidate Charles Jaskiewicz - a critic of rink operations who last year advocated seeking an outside firm to run the rink - said insurance reimbursement could be reduced if the equipment had not been properly maintained.

Alderwoman Deberey Hinchey, also a Democratic mayoral candidate, said it would be unfair to blame new authority members appointed to enact a financial turnaround for the years of back debt. Hinchey said the authority was starting to be successful before the mechanical failure and has budgeted for a profit next year.

Alderman Mark Bettencourt, however, questioned whether the rink is devoting enough budget money to maintenance. The authority budgeted $45,000 for maintenance - the same amount as this year - in the total $696,000 budget. Bettencourt asked how past maintenance money was spent. Comptroller Joseph Ruffo said he would provide the breakdown, also being sent to the insurance company assessing the mechanical failure.

"We have very old equipment," Bettencourt said. "My concern is we're not putting aside enough money to deal with future concerns."


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