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The state Comptroller's Office will audit the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates winter sports venues like the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington. Photo: ORDA
The state Comptroller's Office will audit the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates winter sports venues like the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington. Photo: ORDA

State to audit Olympic authority

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The state Olympic Regional Development Authority is fighting deep financial woes even as its venues rebound. That's according to a financial report released this week by the state Comptroller's Office.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced Wednesday that he will launch a full financial audit of ORDA after his office discovered operational losses and a reliance on private lenders to meet expenses.

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Reported by

Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

First Deputy Comptroller Pete Grannis said the audit is not a condemnation of ORDA's current financial practices. He said its aim is to help ORDA become more efficient as it takes on new ventures and struggles to bounce back from a bad winter one year ago.

"This is a small authority that is taking on more responsibility, and I think there were just concerns about whether or not there might be more efficiencies and a better way to do things that might benefit the ORDA bottom line and their general day-to-day operations," he said. "There was no flash point; there was no key issue that gave rise to our decision to go ahead with an audit."

ORDA President and CEO Ted Blazer couldn't be reached for a phone interview. He said in a statement that the state's preliminary financial report was unexpected and contained inaccuracies. He also said the audit should have disregarded "non-cash" items to better illustrate ORDA's "true cash position."

Grannis said the audit is expected to begin within the next couple of weeks and could take four to six months to complete.

"The value to ORDA is to have us get something to them soon enough so, if we have positive recommendations, they can start to implement them for their next fiscal year," Grannis said.

ORDA operates ski centers at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, Gore Mountain in North Creek and most recently Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills. The state DEC transferred Belleayre to ORDA last year.

ORDA also runs Olympic sports venues in and around Lake Placid. Most of ORDA's revenue comes from activities at those venues. It also gets money from the state, the town of North Elba, the Empire State Development Corporation and the New York Power Authority.

But ORDA has been grappling with a tough fiscal outlook. 

ORDA's subsidy from the state has been reduced by nearly 50 percent in the last five years, from $8 million to $4.7 million. North Elba contributed about $902,000 last year.

Last year, ORDA spent more than it took in and suffered an operating loss of $16.9 million, according to the comptroller's office.

The report also claims that ORDA's staff has grown by 38 percent since 2008. Blazer said ORDA "does not know where the Comptroller's office is getting this information."

ORDA doesn't have any outstanding long-term debt, but it does rely on a close to $7 million line of credit to help pay for capital projects and other operating expenses. Grannis said some of those funds are used with the expectation that the authority will receive Empire State Development grants.

"Obviously, the reliance on a private line of credit is necessary," Grannis said. "They've got costs and they've got payroll to meet and other things, and if the state doesn't come through in a timely way, I think that's been sort of a lifeline."

The report also drew attention to the way ORDA puts contracts out to bid.

ORDA's recipe for success is simple: When conditions are good, business is good. The 2011-12 winter season was disappointing for ORDA, mostly because of unseasonably warm temperatures and little snow.

Blazer delivered a glowing report on the 2012-13 winter season earlier this week. Even though figures are only available through Jan. 31, 2013, Blazer said it's safe to say that this year has been a success.

"When we were at the beginning of our season, everything was in place," he said. "Our venues were ready, we had some anticipation of some snow, our crews had been out on the road doing marketing shows, we had a new website put in place, we had new management, we just had assumed (control) of Belleayre Mountain. We were ready to go. But we were thinking, 'How's it all going to work? How's it all going to fall into place?' We had an uncertain year the year before, but we were really looking forward to this year. As we got off the ground, we had some snow, and we nailed it."

The weather this year allowed Whiteface to open before Thanksgiving for the first time in years. Aside from a warm spell in January, temperatures have been much colder this year, and snow cover has been more consistent. All three ski areas remain open for spring skiing.

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