Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ulin Rink Fiasco

On January 11th, the Division of Conservation and Recreation issued an RFP for 5 five state-owned skating rinks, including Milton’s Ulin rink, currently operated by the DCR. This RFP was but the latest step in an almost 10 year process to remove the state from the management of ice rinks. The operation of these rinks, together with the high capital costs associated with them, were the impetus. To-date, 29 of the 43 state owned rinks have gone through the same or a similar process with great success. The economic crisis of the last few years creates a greater sense of urgency as budget cuts have seriously impacted the DCR. The Ulin Rink in Milton, for example, loses $334,000 per year, and no money is being banked for capital maintenance.
I suspect that the DCR anticipated a relatively smooth process given their many rounds of permitting and leasing successes. The specifics of the RFP had been refined over many years. The use of private operators (19 of 29 rinks) has been shown to be a huge win/win for the state, communities and the skating public (see link to Pioneer Institute Study). The towns in the latest round of RFP’s were given the same right of first refusal that all other communities were given. Guarantees of rate restraint and preservation of current allocations of ice time were made. There is a wealth of experience and data to relatively quickly assess the options and choose a prudent course of action.
And yet at the latest discussion of Ulin Rink by the Board of Selectman we hear Selectmen Shields and Sweeney blaming the state for the predicament the town now finds itself in -- facing a deadline and not really knowing what it will do. How did we get to this point? Why hasn’t the Board talked to private rink operators as an option? Why do the Ulin rink discussions cover the same ground over and over again, beginning to resemble a send up of the movie Ground Hog Day? Why, after 6 months, must we depend on Senator Brian Joyce to get us a fifth deadline extension to June 30th?
The answer is simple. From the very beginning Selectman John Shields has stated his opposition to having a private operator involved with the town. Since his arrival on the Board, Selectman Sweeney has echoed this same theme. They claim that under a private operator ice time will not be guaranteed for Milton Youth Hockey and other non-profits. They claim that private operators will jack up prices making it unaffordable. Without the private operator option, the town is left with either operating the rink ourselves, a risk the Selectmen understandably do not want to take, or finding a non-profit to take it over. And it is this option, and this option alone, that has been pursued, largely by a great commitment of time by volunteers. Meanwhile, the Board of Selectman has failed to fully explore the option of a private operator.
Had the private operator route been examined, the Board would have discovered that fears of lost ice time and unreasonably high prices are without foundation. After all, there is a lengthy record involving numerous communities. Readily available public information exists demonstrating the high degree of success of private operators in expanding access, maintaining reasonable rates, ensuring ice time, securing financial stability, and making ongoing investments in maintenance and capital improvements.
In 2006 the Pioneer Institute published a study on the success of competitive contracting of state owned ice rinks. As part of that study they included a survey of ice rink rental fees for 96 ice rinks conducted by Facilities Management Corp. a private rink operator. Here are the results.

Operator------------------------------------------------------Cost Per Hour

State-owned rinks under long-term lease,-pvt. operator-------------$160
State-owned rinks under long-term lease,-munic. operator-----------$172
Municipal Rinks----------------------------------------------------$189
Non-Profit Rinks---------------------------------------------------$199
College Rinks------------------------------------------------------$204
School Rinks-------------------------------------------------------$215
Private Rinks------------------------------------------------------$240

In March of this year I did a quick survey of DCR rinks and a few others covering the area inside Route 495. Most have a two tier rate system –one rate for non-profits, and one for everyone else. Since the concern is about youth hockey and school hockey, these are the non-profit rates.

DCR Operated Rinks-------------------------------------------------$175

Boston (7rinks)
Medford (2 rinks)

Municipal Operated Rinks


Non-Profit Operated Rinks

Boston Daly Mem. Rink/Newton Country Day School-----------$235

Private Operated Rinks

Facilities Management Corp. (9 rinks)---------------------$180
North Shore Rink Mgt. Assoc. (2 rinks)--------------------$210

Non-DCR Rinks

Stoneham Arena--------------------------------------------$210
Quincy Youth Arena (oper. by Quincy Youth Hockey)---------$290*

*Sept.1 – March 30 Prime (5pm-10pm) Non-prime $250

As you can readily see, the claim of higher rates by private operators of DCR rinks is a myth. They are more than competitive with other forms of management. FMC, the largest operator and the one to have already contacted the town about discussing an operating arrangement, is as competitive as any non-DCR operated location, and only $5 per hour higher than the DCR rates.
I’m not a champion of privatizing government functions. Often the savings are illusory and providers are less responsive to citizens. But this is a special circumstance. The economic model used by DCR cannot be successful. The employees of the DCR can only devote 4-6 months per year to rink management. The rest of the year they must manage 450,000 acres of forests, parks, greenways, historic sites, seashores, lakes, ponds, and other state owned properties. The financials for a 4-6 month season do not work while maintaining reasonable prices. But a 9 or 10 month season can, and private operators have lead the way in showing how this can be done. The results over and over have been reasonable prices, preserved ice time, large expansion of public use, and capital investment to preserve these important assets. Some private operators do all this and also make not so modest payments to the communities they serve.
The Board of Selectmen needs to get serious about this issue. The track record for success for non-profits operating ice rinks in Massachusetts is paper thin. It’s time to put aside the petty politics and the attempts to protect certain members of Youth Hockey. The Board has a responsibility to the Town and to all who use the rink today and in the future. Talk to some of the many communities with private operators. Meet with private operators and get their perspective while asking them to address concerns they may have. This shouldn’t be this hard, and wouldn’t be if the process had been undertaken with complete openness rather than being constrained by a desired outcome based on unreasonable fears of change. This multi-million dollar asset should be managed by professionals who have the best chance to be successful while protecting both the town and the state from what is currently a money losing proposition.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You raise some excellent points and have done a lot of research.I have listened to several of the selectmans discussions on this matter. What has troubled me is how rude the selectman are to Senator Joyce. The Board also seems unable to make a decision They seem to be talking in circles.If this has been in play for 10 years, why the indecision?

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one trusts senator Joyce for one. The question is: "What is in it for him?" I agree with you on the indecision, it is now or never. I don't want to see another deadline extension. I also do not trust the town of Milton with the operation of the rink. If the contract is rewarded to either a private company or a non-profit I would want any money left over (if that is possible) to go into the rink or youth hockey programs.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Steve Morash said...

For the record Senator Joyce is trusted by the majority of people in his district. He continues to be on the right side of issues, delivers for his constituents and cities and towns in the district while being fiscally conservative.

It's amazing that here in Milton, some people cannot get over the fact that in 1996, a Park Commissioner beat Joe Manning for teh State Rep seat. Get over it.The bottom line on most things from the Board of Selectmen these days and always out of John Shields is this: if the State Senator proposed it, he's against it.

It matters not that it's good for the Town, cost effective, fiscally prudent or just plain common sense and smart.

This Ulin Rink situation is the epitome of pigheadedness.

Rather than have a private operator that has staff and equipment with lower rates, we'll give this to a group of hockey parents because...why?

Mr. Shields has to put away his delusions of grandeur and do the right thing no matter who proposed it!

10:24 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

And just who are you, Mr. Anonymous, to tell us what everyone thinks of Senator Joyce? I'm afraid your view represents a distinct minority of folks who have long exhibited a rather bizarre viewpoint about a resident who has done tremendous good for this town.

Obviously, suspecting a personal motive everytime an elected politician proposes something doesn't make a lot of sense. It's merely just a rather childish expression of dislike.

The DCR rinks are for the skating public, not just the Youth Hockey programs. And if some of the Selectmen could put aside their long standing petty jealousy at Senator Joyce's tremendous success as a public offical, this thing could be taken care of in very short order.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't one our newly elected selectman one of those "hockey parents"? Why is no one questioning his involvement or motives here?

And I agree with Mr. Morash about the resentment from 1996's elections. This town needs to look forward, not backward. Brian Joyce has done great work for this town and lets hope he continues to do so.

I'd put my name here, but being associated with small businesses here in town, I've been verbally assaulted and threatened by some for my opinions and votes. I don't want their businesses to suffer.

Phil & Brian - keep up the good work.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's funny; some of these comments seem to be resentful of Mr. Sweeney's win this year. I agree let us look forward and not backward. Mr. Sweeney has done great work as a volunteer for the MYH youth hockey program for many years. He has intimate knowledge of Ulin skating ring. He was voted in to make decisions for the town. I trust he will do the right thing. Let us put aside are pettiness from the last election.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

It seems you're the one preoccupied with the last election. Mr. Sweeney's history with youth hockey doesn't change the facts of the situation, which you ignore. Neither Mr. Sweeney,not the hockey parents he wants to run the rink know anything about such an undertaking. His job is to make the best decision for the whole town, and the fact he was voted in doesn't mean he shouldn't be called to task when he's going off on a tangent. The obvious and proper road is to have this rink run by a private operator. No one has made a good argument otherwise.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While we're at it, can we get a private company to run the schools?

11:37 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Private companies don't run schools. Rather a silly analogy.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Steve Morash said...

The more I read about this and hear about this the more irritating the BOS becomes.

We judge elected officials by their actions and votes.

I was, and still am, willing to give Mr. Sweeney the benefit of the doubt and see what he does. On this issue of Ulin rink, he missed an open net! As far as Mr. Shields, he couldn't put the puck in the ocean if he was standing on the edge of the pier.

He has painted himself into a corner on this one. He also has alienated the hardest working elected official Milton has seen in a long time.

There's an old saying that when you're in a hole, stop digging. John, put down the shovel now.

I guess the thing that really makes me upset though is that Anonymous feels threatened that his friends will be "hurt" by his exercise of the first amendment. Well doesn't that just about sum it all up. Someone is being bullied.

I thought they just passed a law outlawing that sort of behavior. It's time to call the bully out.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2 here (don't confuse me with #1). Here's what I don't get: Shouldn't Mr. Sweeny, as the face of MYH, recuse himself from this conversation? My understanding is that the current policy allows for MYH to be in charge of allocating ice time to other entities, which they do at a mark up, charging more than they pay. I think that's a conflict of interest. Is it just me?

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MYH is not in charge of allocating ice time. Mr. Sweeney is a volunteer and receives no money from MYH. Recusing him from the conversation is akin to recusing a selectman with a child in the Milton public school during school budget talks or school policy.

10:31 PM  

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