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Copyright 2017 Valley News Oct 21, 2017
Valley News; White River Junction, Vt.
Hartford — When, after a one-week delay, the Wendell A. Barwood Arena opens to the public today, it marks the beginning of two annual traditions that promise to be more intertwined this year than ever before — ice season and budget season.
That's because, as the Hartford Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Leo Pullar begin their review of a stack of seemingly urgent financial needs for the 2018-19 fiscal year, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department is lobbying for a $500,000 refrigeration overhaul he says is needed to keep the ice frozen and the rink open.
In all, Parks and Recreation Department head Scott Hausler is seeking $900,000, of which $250,000 would go to replace the dasher board system, and $150,000 would go toward an artificial surface that would allow the facility to be used during the summer months.
On Friday, Pullar and Hausler both visited WABA to watch as workers painted lines onto the freshly frozen ice in preparation for the weekend, which features afternoon classes for children and beginners, and public skate sessions beginning at 4:15 p.m. today and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
After years of short-term fixes that have cost the town tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of rink time, it's time to replace the system, Hausler said in the first draft of the town's Capital Improvement Plan, a schedule of needs that the town anticipates will arise over the course of the next six years. Though the entire municipal budget is only about $15 million, the first draft of the plan, which Pullar presented to the Hartford Selectboard last week, includes $18 million in identified needs, including building a reserve fund to purchase a new firetruck, an overhaul of the public safety building, street paving, sidewalk construction and a multimillion-dollar project to shore up the retaining wall that supports the road leading to Fairview Terrace.
Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said the amount was "shocking," but expressed confidence that Pullar would help lead the town down the best path.
The entire list of needs is unlikely to be completed, but in a narrative he wrote to accompany the request, Hausler made the case for addressing the 1990s-era refrigeration system and its supports, which include a chiller and a computer control system that was made by a company that is no longer in business.
"Failure of the system is highly possible and would cause shut down of the operation," Hausler wrote. "The investment of a new chiller, controls, cooling and dehumidification needs to be a high priority in order to continue the ice arena service to the community and region. ... Continued Band-Aid approaches will only lead to major mechanical failure during the operating season."
Pullar said both the price tag — and the need — might be overstated.
"This is just an early draft of what the staff sees as the needs across the town," he said. "The guts of the system weren't looked at. There are definitely cheaper options. This is the high end."
Pullar said more concrete ideas about the plan will emerge over the course of four or five more Selectboard meetings that will be held to refine the Capital Improvement Program. Grassi said he needed more information before he committed to spending money on a complete replacement.
"I need to hear more from the town manager on that, whether that's something that we should have done yesterday, or if there's a way for us to put money in a reserve account to do it down the road," he said.
There's no question that the WABA facility and its refrigeration system have been a major source of concern and costs for taxpayers.
A $2.5 million bond to renovate WABA that was approved by voters in 2013 initially called for the addition of an eastern wing to the facility at a cost of $700,000, but that idea was scrapped when it was determined that the costs had been dramatically underestimated. Even after abandoning that component of the plan, a $405,000 shortfall remained, which was addressed in part by value engineering. Grassi said he doesn't understand why a system replacement wasn't rolled into the 2013 bond package that was designed to modernize the facility, among other things.
"The bond should have included any major expenses in operating the facility," he said. "Bare bones is bare bones, but in this case it's penny-wise, pound-foolish."
The cost overrun eventually was addressed with an additional $180,000 expenditure by the Selectboard, which used $50,000 donated by the nonprofit Friends of Hartford Hockey, $100,000 from the operating budget and $255,000 from the town's rainy day fund. In 2015, a different apparent oversight in the bond left the arena without a proper access road, leaving an $80,000 funding hole that leaders from both the town and the Hartford School District eventually found funds to close.
This year, WABA originally was scheduled to open on Oct. 15, but the delay, due to malfunctions of both a power supply component and the computer module that controls the chiller, is in line with other years. There's no total accounting of how much the refrigeration system has cost the town in repairs and lost revenues due to reduced rink time, but various town documents and Valley News archive articles from the past decade suggest that both types of losses are frequent.
Until recently, revenues for the town were tracked as the "Outdoor Facilities Fund," which typically nets roughly $180,000 annually. In a town audit for the 2008-09 fiscal year, auditors reported that revenues to the fund "were down by 14.5 percent due to refrigeration problems at the start of the season."
A few other documented delays caused by refrigeration problems happened in December 2012, when the arena was shut down and a scheduled opening home game of the Hartford girls varsity hockey team postponed; last October, when a short-circuit in the rink's refrigeration unit's electrical panel caused an unanticipated thaw that led to a three-day delay to the start of that season; and in December, when refrigeration problems caused the facility to be shut down for a day, canceling the skating plans of evening renters.
In October 2015, a $28,000 refrigeration compressor was ordered by Hausler's predecessor, Tad Nunez, for WABA, according to Hartford Parks and Recreation Commission minutes. In July 2016, another compressor was purchased and installed, for another $30,000.
The 2015 five-year Capital Improvement Program, which was developed under Nunez and former Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, included no immediate expenditures for the arena's equipment and refrigeration system, though it anticipated spending $255,000 on that category between 2018 and 2020.
Grassi said he was dissatisfied with the FY 2015-16 budget, which proved to yield shortfalls for the Parks and Recreation Department budget.
"The budget presented to us by Parks and Recreation, I don't believe was representative of the issues that we were going to be facing," he said. "If a portion of that was due to WABA expenses, I don't know, but I question that the budget wasn't dealing with what I think was an obvious problem coming down."
In April, a representative with servicing company Vermont Commercial Refrigeration "informed us that he cannot guarantee the system will function next season, and recommend we move forward with (a series of temporary fixes totaling thousands of dollars) if we plan to limp through another year," Nunez wrote in a department report to Pullar. "If all work is done, there is still no guarantee that plant will make it through another season."
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.
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