HAVERHILL — City Council has asked Mayor James Fiorentini to form a commission to oversee Veteran’s Memorial Ice Rink and to look into buying the facility from the state.
The council has been looking for ways to improve and provide better maintenance of the 45-year-old rink in the wake of complaints that it has fallen into disrepair and that the city is not spending enough money to take care of it.
“The rink is a cash cow for the city, but it appears we are only doing minimal maintenance,” Councilor William Macek said. “Maybe that’s not the way we should be doing it anymore.”
Haverhill has been leasing the rink from the state for $1-a-year for more than two decades. The current 25-year lease expires in 2027. It stipulates the city must spend at least $1.4 million in capital improvements over the lease term, officials said.
Human Services Director Vincent Ouellette, who is in charge of the rink, and several youth skating and hockey coaches have said a myriad of state rules that specify how and to whom the city can sell ice time has limited the facility’s rental income potential.
Councilors said Ouellette is unable to focus enough attention on the rink because he has too many other duties and responsibilities for the city, including overseeing the Citizen Center and Recreation Department.
Council President Robert Scatamacchia said a commission would provide five or six advocates to lobby the mayor and the state on behalf of the city and the rink.
The council voted 8 to 0 to ask Fiorentini to form a commission similar to the one that oversees Trinity Stadium. The mayor would also appoint the members.
In an interview after the council’s vote, Fiorentini said he’s not likely to support a rink commission or buying the facility. He said any commission, if the state would even allow one, would have to include representatives from around the region because the state considers the rink to be a regional asset.
“I wouldn’t do it (form a commission) because I don’t want to lose control of the rink,” the mayor said.
However, Fiorentini said he would consider forming a committee of coaches and others who use the rink to advise Ouellette on issues that come up.
“Vinnie does a great job running the rink and he has my complete support,” the mayor said. “In the just the last few years he has reduced salaries from $143,000 a year to $67,000. It’s now a self-sustaining facility and we also make enough to set aside money every year for capital repairs and improvements.”
Fiorentini said he’s also “not inclined” to support buying the facility, but he’s willing to talk to councilors about it once he receives their formal request to look into it.
“If we bought it, we’d be on the hook to pay for any major repairs,” the mayor said.
Councilor John Michitson said he wants the city to do a financial analysis of the facility before deciding if buying it makes sense.
“Before we agree to take over another building, we should make sure the numbers work,” Michitson said. “Because our record of taking care of buildings hasn’t been great.”
Michitson also suggested there are ways the council could try to force the mayor to spend more money maintaining the facility, especially during its budget review process. That process is expected to begin any day now, as soon as Fiorentini submits his spending proposal for fiscal year that begins July 1.
Last week, the council’s Administration and Finance Committee met with Ouellette and local youth league representatives to discuss the condition of the ice rink and its future.
Bill Mahoney, a representative of the Greater Haverhill Pentucket Youth Hockey program, outlined a long list of problems at the rink, including a leaky roof, outdated ice-making machine, malfunctioning heating and electrical systems and small dressing rooms. He also raised concerns about poor lighting in the parking lot, potholes in the driveway and the location of vending machines.
At that meeting, Scatamacchia said he recently toured the facility and that he was shocked at how much it has deteriorated in recent years.
Ouellette said he has more than $100,000 saved to repair the worst sections of the roof and buy a new ice-making machine. He said the city will also be making a number of aesthetic improvements while the facility is closed this summer. Plans are in the works to borrow $250,000 in three years for a new roof, Ouellette said.
Ouellette said the facility is on track to generate about $310,000 in rental income this year, but that a large chunk of that money is used to pay for maintenance workers and utilities.
There is one full-time maintenance worker and six part-timers, he said. The $210-per-hour ice time rate is set by the state, Ouellette said.
Youth league representatives and councilors said the facility needs a full-time manager and someone to promote and sell ice time.
The Haverhill rink is one of 19 regional ice facilities owned by the state, but only Haverhill and Peabody run their’s, Councilor Colin Lepage said. The others are run by professional management companies, he said. Councilors said they are not interested in hiring a company to run the rink.
The rink, which is on the high school campus, is home ice for both the Haverhill High School and Pentucket Regional High School hockey teams.