MIDDLETON — Local legislators are once again calling for an audit of the Essex Sports Center.
Senators Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, a Republican, and Joan Lovely of Salem, a Democrat, filed a bill last week that would require the state inspector general to audit the business "to protect the interest of taxpayers."
Tarr, the Senate minority leader, said the audit is needed to answer "lingering questions" about the sports center, which opened in 2017 next to Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School and leases land from the state.
"I don't know that there's any one set of smoking guns here, but you don't know what you don't know," Tarr said. "That's one of the reasons we want to go forward."
The sports center has been under scrutiny because it has been late on its real estate taxes to the town of Middleton in the past, and its owners are embroiled in several lawsuits over the building of the facility.
The public has a stake in the business's viability because the sports center was built on state land and has a five-year lease agreement with the state. Under that agreement, the business pays the Essex North Shore school district an average of $112,000 per year, and is required to give the school 40 hours of free time per year. The center includes two ice rinks and an indoor field.
Essex Sports Center LLC managing partner and president James Stubblebine declined to comment. The business is currently up to date on its lease payments and its real estate taxes, according to school and town officials.
The legislation is the second attempt by Tarr and Lovely to force an audit of the sports center. Last year an amendment requiring an audit did not make it into the final budget bill.
Tarr said it's important for the legislation to pass in order to establish that the inspector general's office has the authority to audit the business, which he described as "quasi public."
"This particular facility stands in a very unique position and we need to make sure that it's operating in the best interests of the Commonwealth and the school and the taxpayers who are paying the bills and receiving the benefits of it," Tarr said.
The Essex North Shore School Committee also requested an audit of the sports center last year, but to a different agency, the state auditor's office. The auditor's office declined to do an audit, saying it was not "appropriate" because the facility was up to date on its taxes and was fulfilling its lease obligations to the state.
The allegations of mismanagement by investors and contractors do not involve public money and therefore are private matters not subject to state auditor review, the office said.
Tarr said he believes the inspector general is the proper agency to look into the sports center's operations.
"Our thought was the inspector general was well-qualified to do it and has done things like this in the past," he said.
In an email, Lovely said the audit is needed because local officials and media reports have raised "compelling questions about the center's financial position, and the Inspector General has the necessary expertise to ensure that this business operating on state land has its fiscal house in proper order."
The legislation calls for the inspector general to examine the sports center's financial stability, compliance with its lease and local tax obligations, and its ability to continue to meet its obligations.
The bill would also require the inspector general to refer to the attorney general "any instances of fraud or other criminal activity."
The legislation must be approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. Tarr said a public hearing on the proposed bill will be scheduled.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.