Time to find out more about ORDA budget

As more money pours in to upgrade the state’s winter sports venues, we’re realizing how much the public doesn’t know about how these tax dollars are being spent.

We don’t want to be suspicious or accusatory. We just want more information.

We’d like leaders of New York’s Olympic Regional Development Authority have to tell people how, as precisely as possible, they plan to use $82.5 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed to upgrade venues this coming fiscal year. We’d also like them to publicly make their best pitch for why these venues should get so much more after the state invested the same amount in them over the last two years: $20 million in 2017 and $62.5 million a year ago.

That’s just for capital improvements. For operations, it would be nice if ORDA’s skier and visitor revenue covered its spending, but in reality it always falls short. The state gave it $10 million last year, and now Cuomo is ready to give it $27 million, including an $18 million increase for as-yet-unexplained contractual services.

Should legislators approve that? What will their constituents tell them?

The explanations from the governor and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism have said the goal is to add year-round amenities to help Lake Placid compete with Park City, Utah, for tourists. What does that mean? The $20 million capital allocation two years ago was supposed to include a mountain coaster ride at Mount Van Hoevenberg and a zip line at Whiteface Mountain. Did all that money instead get eaten up by upgrades to the Whiteface and Gore ski lodges? Or would this be for new amusement amenities? Or new ski jumps?

ORDA officials have started to talk about this. On Wednesday, the day after the governor presented his budget, ORDA CEO Mike Pratt and board member Art Lussi talked to our reporter Griffin Kelly. Pratt couldn’t put price tags on the upgrades but said even the proposed $82.5 million wouldn’t be enough to fund all the projects the authority would like to complete.

That is sobering, and good to know. It would have been good to know a year ago.

It was a bit of a shock last year to see the state fork over $60 million to upgrade the 1980 Olympic venues, but people figured that’s what was needed to prepare for the 2023 Winter World University Games. We and many others figured that would cover it all, and while public officials didn’t specifically say that, they didn’t say otherwise. Certainly none warned it wouldn’t even cover half.

Or maybe a lot less than half. How much more do ORDA officials plan to request?

Maybe they don’t even know.

Lussi said the price to upgrade an old facility can increase after a project starts.

“What is expected to be a $50,000 fix turns into a couple of hundred thousand because a wall is unstable or an elevator needs to meet modern (American with Disabilities Act) requirements,” he said.

State Sen. Betty Little echoed that.

“Two years ago I was able to get $3 million for the ski jumps, thinking it would be enough, but obviously it wasn’t.”

“Look, we’re either going to maintain our infrastructure, or we’re not,” said Assemblyman Dan Stec, whose district includes Lake Placid. “We’re either going to stay in the winter sports business, or we’re not.”

He makes a good point about commitment. But on the other hand, isn’t that the kind of thing one would say to rationalize runaway costs?

While these statements are understandable, they also raise disturbing fears. We love the Olympic venues, but are they a money pit? We love that New York state has maintained these venues and kept Lake Placid as an international winter sports hotspot for all these years — outliving Olympic sites built much later — but are we wasting money out of pride? We love that ORDA staff members dedicate their lives to managing them, but are they weak on managing money? (The state comptroller’s office has criticized their fiscal management in the past.)

Those are painful questions, and we dearly hope the answer to all three is “no.” Yet those fears should prompt us to examine ORDA’s fiscal management with open eyes. Maybe we have not pressed hard enough.

Therefore, we will seek details on how ORDA has spent tax dollars on venue upgrades so far, and how it plans to do so in the future. We hope it will help settle people’s minds. Hopefully Pratt and other ORDA officials will sit down with us soon and go through their budgets, like the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism did with us this fall.

State taxpayers should be given enough information to decide for themselves if this is a good way to spend this tax money, or if those funds might be better spent elsewhere.


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