Archived Ants
Sunday
Mar162014

ISSUE # 104: With Minimal Oversight, City Hall GallivANTs Along

"Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river."                -- Nikita Khrushchev

 

FEES, FEES & MORE FEES

Always with an eye on squeezing the free market homeowner, the latest shot over the bow is whether or not to charge non-resident homeowners more for development. As the city embarks on a (highly biased) $33,000 study designed to give the city a hard number that defines how much employee generation there is per square foot of development, Mayor Skadron recently pointed out that "all single family homes are not necessarily created equal." His point is that one must take into account the actual occupants of each household. In some cases, for example, the (presumably local) resident is the gardener, the housekeeper and takes out his own trash. In this instance, he and several locals argue, there are zero employees generated. Similarly, if a homeowner builds a house for his children so that they can stay in Aspen to live and work, the children should not be counted as employees generated because they're already employees here. Good points. But the bigger picture is being entirely ignored.

The housing mitigation fee is actually the double taxation of private property owners. Each real estate transaction in Pitkin County comes with a 1.5% Real Estate Transfer Tax (the RETT). Two-thirds of these funds (1%) collected by the RETT already go directly toward subsidized housing. Upon purchasing private property, owners have already "mitigated" for subsidized housing! Furthermore, at the current rate, Aspen's subsidized housing fund brings in over $1.2 million per year from sales tax, $5 million per year from the RETT, and hundreds of thousands of dollars from cash-in-lieu fees and investment earnings. According to the 2013 city budget, after completing Burlingame 2 and 3, and paying for APCHA operations, the subsidized housing fund will have over $41 million in fund balance at the end of 2022. Really. How much is enough?!

Why is it that raising money for more subsidized housing mitigation at every turn is the government's never-ending priority? The truth is, our elected leadership refuses to ask itself this exact question. While they commission ridiculous studies on the public dime, they ignore the greater issue at hand: With 2800 (and growing) subsidized housing units in our portfolio, who on earth are we building all these new units for? Where are all these new jobs coming from?

It is my belief that ALL members of this community create "impacts" and should share in the costs equitably. (Did you know that the sale of subsidized housing is not subject to the RETT? These folks get the benefit of the RETT but don't pay their fair share into it.) Subsidized housing mitigation fees for development are simply punitive, designed to "punish" those in our community who are not on the public dole. Until proven otherwise, I am convinced that we have more than enough subsidized housing and what we really need to work on is creating jobs for those we already house. We should be GRATEFUL for job generation, however I seriously doubt that development and redevelopment is the source of job growth! In fact, it's very hard to imagine dramatic job growth in our community in the foreseeable future.

There are several steps that the city should take in the immediate term while this issue is being reviewed:

  • The obvious one: conduct a THOROUGH AND DETAILED subsidized housing audit that outlines every single unit in our inventory, its ownership, its tenancy, and confirm ownership qualification and compliance. Let's find out who our subsidized housing residents are and where they're working. It's public housing -- this should be public information. A mandatory audit alone will surely shake out some chaff and free up some inventory.
  • Design an incentive program for subsidized housing residents to sell their units. There are many residents who are "stuck" here, realizing that their subsidized housing purchase many years ago was not exactly the best retirement savings plan after all. Imagine a $25,000 "bonus" for selling one's unit. For $1 million in incentive dollars, we could quickly "recoup" 40 units into inventory to rent or sell. We sure as heck can't build 40 units for that!
  • Provide the public with a detailed report on the city's presumption of job growth, in what industries and by which employers. I question the presumption of a never-ending demand for subsidized housing by qualified individuals. Furthermore, should we be on the hook to build subsidized housing for anyone and everyone who wants it just because they pass through the pearly gates on Hwy 82?
  • Suspend subsidized housing mitigation fees until a determination is made whether or not subsidized housing mitigation is double-taxation. This is a critical issue to resolve - and one that will continue to be divisive for the community until it is. 

The Red Ant does NOT advocate different rules for local private property owners vs second homeowners. More divisiveness is never the answer. I have enormous empathy for the working locals whose free market property purchases are turning out to be resale nightmares because of the punitive mitigation fees for new buyers anxious to redevelop. There are many examples that have been made public, however, the answer lies with a greater solution, not carve-outs for locals. And once again, it comes back to the unintended consequences of a subsidized housing program run amok. It's true, some locals in our subsidized housing program have amassed savings, drive luxury cars and own private property elsewhere, while their free-market property owning colleagues have built equity in their investments but are hamstrung in their efforts to sell based on the city's mitigation fees. This is not right.

At a certain point, enough is enough. We DO NOT NEED more subsidized housing. We need to manage and maintain what we have.

CENTENNIAL: RATTLING THE TIN CUP

Residents of the beleaguered homeowners association have formally asked for help to repair their very damaged structures - to the tune of $3.24 million. Thankfully, in a joint meeting between council and the county commissioners, it was agreed that no public dollars should be spent on the fix. At issue is the HOA's claim that their buildings were defective from the start, and the water damage, structural issues, siding problems, etc. are not the owner's fault therefore not their financial responsibility. The Red Ant has written about this over the years, and I wholeheartedly agree that not one red cent of public funds should be expended. This is a proven issue of subsidized housing gone wild. When residents do not understand the responsibilities of home ownership, specifically "preventative maintenance," buildings do not take care of themselves. While the local governments consider a low-interest loan and other solutions for Centennial, the precedent-setting final determination on how to fund the huge costs of massive repairs will serve as either a huge warning or big relief to other subsidized housing owners.

A recent letter to the editor from Sam Brown who developed Centennial over 30 years ago spells the issue out better than I ever could. It's entitled "Centennial homeowners made their own beds":

"I want to point out for about the ten-thousandth time that the Centennial rental buildings were built approximately 30 years ago at the same time as the homeowners' buildings, using the same drawings from the same world-class Canadian architect, the same first-class engineer, the same standing-seam metal roofs and the same highest quality redwood siding.
 
The rental buildings have exactly none of the problems the homeowners have. This is not an accident. Any homeowner who spends nothing on external maintenance for 30 years will have serious problems. 
 
Any homeowner who, moreover, adds on porches where none were intended and violates the basic structure of the building will have even more problems.
 
In order to solve a problem it must be accurately understood. And the debate at council suggests that no one does.
 
At the Centennial rental apartments, we pride ourselves on providing the highest quality housing at affordable prices without seeking public subsidy."

Taking care of our subsidized housing inventory is something that seems to escape the city bureaucrats who clamor for each and every opportunity to simply build more new units. The "resolution" of the Centennial issue will set a course; whether it's one of responsible home ownership or a glorified rental/ dorm/frat house scenario is yet to be seen.

DON'T RENT YOUR CONDO TO A LOCAL WORKER

As council deliberates how to encourage existing condo and lodge properties to renovate in an effort to increase and improve the local tourist bed base, some tweaks to existing rules are being revisited. One "tweak" should be the abolition of the rule that requires the owners of any condo property that has ever housed working residents to provide replacement affordable housing if it is torn down or removed from the rental pool. Again, this punitive rule was designed to prevent private property owners from fixing up a rental unit and keeping it for themselves as a second residence or combining adjacent condo units, because it is believed that such projects would displace local workers. Staff currently has two proposed options for owners in this predicament: an exemption for the unit if the owner agrees to keep the condo in the short-term rental pool, or require mitigation only for units rented to a local worker in the past 10 years. Despite 2800+ units in our subsidized housing inventory, the city simply cannot let this one go!

If you rent to a local worker, your condo is marked. But now you know.

HYDRO LIVES ON

I hate nothing more than having to say, I told ya so. But I did. The hydro plant is not going away. Lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick's water weasels came before council last month and told a bald-faced lie. They said that if the federal permit was not renewed, the project would be killed, and the city would open itself up to outside competition for the completion of the project. (As if any fool would take on such an outright financial and environmental disaster!?) They said they needed $8K to maintain a federal preliminary permit that would allow hydropower to remain an energy option for Castle and Maroon Creeks. LIE. The March 1 submission is really not a "keep our options open" move as council was led to believe. It is actually a very clear statement of intent to build the hydro plant, including a report on the last 6 months' of activity and a submission of a "completion of administrative record." No future options would have been off the table without this renewal, however four council members bit, fully believing staff that this was not a go-ahead for the project, rather a place-holder for future consideration. Adam Frisch listened to the outside experts and saw through the BS, however his lone "nay" was not enough to sway the outcome.

The next issue in the hydro plant saga will be the receipt of a $90K study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that will give the city a list of green power options that could possibly supplant a hydro facility. (Recall that the city of Aspen has a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2015, despite this never having been approved by the voters. Green at any cost, folks!) It is widely expected, however, that the NREL report will include hydro as an option. The city will likely see this as the "green" light they need to proceed.

The hydro fight looks to be heating up yet again. Remember the petition effort in early 2012? And the "No" vote? In defiance of the voters, council appears to be poised to move ahead regardless. And how ironic: the hydro plant is an anathema to the city's own "Canary Initiative" because all studies show declining stream flows as a result of climate change. Why then take MORE water out of our streams? Last time, it was only an advisory vote. If we have to fight them again, we will. Stand by. I will let you know how you can help!

HOTEL ASPEN REDEVELOPMENT

The development controversy du jour is over the proposed remodel of Hotel Aspen on Main Street. "Incentives for updating Aspen's affordable small lodges" to maintain and enhance our shrinking bed base is a top priority for city council. But sadly, this group doesn't entirely understand that incentives will mean giving something to get something else. Hotel Aspen's owners are looking to redevelop most of the hotel's site, increasing the hotel's rooms from 45 to 54. But they want to develop three free market townhouses on the property as the economic engine for financing the project. On one hand, the townhomes exceed the city's residential zoning limits and would require several variances. On the other hand, the request is in line with the city's program to encourage hotel redevelopment through offering greater residential development allowances. Council is evenly split on the approval - Romero and Frisch for, Daily and Skadron against. (Ann Mullins has recused herself because of her prior role on the Historic Preservation Commission where she reviewed the application.) Thus far, the owners are still working to tweak their plans to make the proposal work, but Daily and Skadron (not to mention the historic hysterics who never want a single thing to change) vehemently oppose the townhomes due to their 3-story size. How much longer will the owners play ball? No one knows. But should the deal go away and another office building be built on the site, we'll know who to blame.

(Notably, and illustrative of the pickle they find themselves in, council is concurrently working to write Aspen's lodging ordinance. One of the issues that they cautiously support on a case-by-case basis is allowing for 4-story lodges within city limits.)

YOU CAN'T MAKE IT UP

Mayor Mick has a column in the Aspen Daily News. Yep, every other Monday. I've read his first few installments and can't really tell you what his points are, other than he's still angry, he's obsessed with providing subsidized housing to anyone who breathes, and he's doing his part to incite the already-terrible class warfare issues in this community. Swell. Spare yourselves....

FOOD TAX REFUND

Time is running out. Print THIS form and get your $50 food tax refund today. Deadline is April 15.  Questions?  Call the city finance department 970-920-5040.

 

 

Monday
Feb032014

ISSUE # 103: Hard to QuANTify

"Do not count your chickens before they are hatched." -- Aesop

MORE MITIGATION MAYHEM

The Red Ant has long been concerned with (more like "appalled by") the arbitrary nature of the City's laws concerning subsidized housing mitigation. (For a detailed background, re-visit Issue #88 and Issue #89.) Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the mitigation issue was raised again recently before the (relatively) new council - staff's hope was the new make-up of the board would yield substantial changes to the existing regulations despite the same ideas being shot down exactly one year ago.

Here's what's going on. It has LONG been believed by local bureaucrats that the development and re-development of residential and commercial property in Aspen impacts the community in such a way (through jobs generated) that owners of said properties MUST be required to offset the subsidized housing needs created by these new jobs. One of several subsidized housing mitigation options for property owners is to pay a "fee-in-lieu (FIL)" for such housing that would be built somewhere in the community, just not on the site of the development at hand.

Last year's issue, reconstituted this year, pertains to the City's belief that the current FIL rate is thought to be "unrealistically low." According to a 1/3/14 memo from APCHA and the city's housing manager states, The FIL does not "generate a realistic amount of revenue to help offset the costs incurred to produce the additional employee housing needed as a result of the additional employees that are generated by most development." And a theme that was repeated several times in staff's presentation was that "the city is currently taking in far less than it should and/or could" with the current model.

The critical question unanswered by city staff's proposal is how to determine the number of "full-time equivalent (FTE)" employees generated by residential and commercial development. City staff seems to think this number is VERY high, but they cannot quantify it. They like a counting methodology called the "market affordability gap (MAG)" that would charge a FIL that is based on the difference between the cost of luxury free-market housing and what a category 3 worker can afford. APCHA calculates this "affordability gap" number to be $708 for every additional square foot of free market housing built in town. (The current FIL is just under $77/sf.) This implies that every free market property owner should pay the difference between the value of their house and what local workers can afford. Simply preposterous!

According to a 1/24/13 guest column by former councilman Tim Semrau, "This policy also implies that there is NO LIMIT to the affordable housing needed, NO LIMIT to the amount of money the local government will collect, and NO LIMIT on the number of units the government intends to build. This is a complete change from the current policy based on one employee needing to be housed per 3000 sf of new free market housing and the actual cost to house them."

Semrau goes on to point out that the 2010 Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP), an advisory document, states a goal of housing a "critical mass" of workers through "reasonable mitigation." However, there is "no definition of exactly how many employees constitute a critical mass, no analysis of the direct impacts of home expansion requiring specific mitigation to meet specific community goals, no statement of how charging a fee to make up the difference between what an employee can afford and what a free-market home is worth. None."

Just imagine, under the proposed plan, a 1000 sf expansion will cost $708,000 in subsidized housing mitigation - likely twice the cost of the actual expansion itself! THIS is how these people think!

The good news occurred when councilman Dwayne Romero asked city staff, "What has changed with this proposal since it was presented last January?" The answer was "Nothing." Council went on to direct staff to look into other FTE determination methodologies for consideration, refine the proposal for residential expansion impacts and to commission a professional study to determine an accurate and defensible FTE determination. In effect, the study buys the community a good 6 months before this ugly beast raises its head again.

Strangely - and rather unexpectedly - councilman Adam Frisch, in his wise critique of the MAG methodology, deemed the current FIL "too low" in his opinion and, in a move that mirrored staff's arbitrary assignment of valuation, stated out of the clear blue that he thought $500/sf might be a good number. WHAT?!?!?!?

Read more about the housing mitigation issue in Paul Menter's recent column in the Aspen Daily News HERE.

MITIGATION LEGALITIES

As the staff proposal waits on ice for the housing mitigation study results, council would be well served to focus on the issue of "basing the residential mitigation requirements on employee generation associated with homes."   This staff recommendation highlights a fundamental failure of the existing housing mitigation program in Aspen. This program quite likely violates Colorado State Law. C.R.S. 29-20-104.5 specifically prohibits local governments from imposing on a private property owner capital costs that ought to be financed by taxpayers at large. In other words, for a housing impact fee to be lawful, the city must be able to demonstrate that the fee will "defray projected impacts on capital facilities CAUSED BY proposed development." Simply put, the law requires that the city show two things:

  • That a development for which a subsidized housing mitigation impact fee is charged actually requires the city to build more subsidized housing.
  • That the fee charged is actually the amount required to defray the resulting effects on the city's subsidized housing stock.

In a 1/5/14 memo to council, 2013 mayoral candidate Maurice Emmer wrote, "The city has explored various modifications to its method of computing affordable housing mitigation fees. But the city has ducked the two fundamental requirements above. The city has built a complex and extremely expensive 'government within a government' in the form of its housing mitigation system, but skipped what any developer knows is the most important step: it skipped the foundation. The city simply ignored the necessity of complying with the requirements in the Colorado statute. The city's oversight has not escaped the attention of local developers and their lawyers. (See the 1/24/13 letter from attorney Joseph E. Edwards, III, to the previous council.)"

DO WE REALLY NEED MORE HOUSING?

It's a question that nobody (in local government) wants to ask. So I'm asking. All this talk of mitigation raises far larger questions: Who are we building this new housing for? Where are all the jobs? When the subsidized housing and FIL programs began, subsidized housing for employees was indeed a critical issue for the community. But here we are 30+ years later with a housing inventory of 2800 units, a robust valley-wide transit system and a big fat healthy 1.5% Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT), two-thirds of which fills the subsidized housing coffers with every transaction. Who are the dwellers of our 2800 units? Where do they work? How many are retirees? In other words, are they in compliance? Or are we housing a bunch of squatters and scofflaws who, if cleared out, would create room for new employees? Why doesn't APCHA know? (They don't, I've asked.) Why isn't this information posted on a publicly accessible excel spreadsheet on the APCHA page of the City/County website? In other words, if we don't know what we have, and we don't know who lives there, how can we possibly know how much more housing we actually need?

My unscientific guess is that we have an under-employed population in our subsidized housing inventory. In Issue #89, I wrote what I call my "Mitigation Manifesto" which outlines my thoughts on this subject. If you're interested, check it out.

I believe the first step should be a thorough subsidized housing audit. None of these other studies matter until we determine what we're working with. It could be that we are legitimately in desperate need of more units. But it could also be that we have an out-of-control housing program desperately need of new management and better oversight.

Besides, with a projected $41 million forecasted to come into the program over the next 8 years, why isn't there a plan or a budget from APCHA that outlines what they would like to do with these pennies from heaven? The city is notorious for building up stashes of cash that they spend at will with no explanation or public oversight. The housing fund appears to be shaping up as a similar slush fund.

And, even more frightening is the fact that the city is working off some dubious forecasts and projections from a study that tells them to build and build and build, with no end in sight.... 

WARNING: THE FUTURE OF SUBSIDIZED HOUSING GROWTH

According to a recent (2012) study commissioned by the city and prepared by Economic & Planning Systems Inc (EPS), a firm specializing in real estate economics, public finance and land use policy, the forecasted number of subsidized housing units needed in Aspen in the next 8 years is nothing short of astonishing.  EPS forecasts 1000 net new jobs in Aspen between 2012 and 2022.  (Never mind that the past 10 years has had flat job growth and there is no indication that this will be changing, the city just loves this number because it fits their narrative.)  Given that projection, EPS has determined that the subsidized housing need in Aspen from this growth in employment (while maintaining a 53% commuting percentage) is 230 new units.  Additionally, the subsidized housing need in Aspen to address retirement (retirees staying in their units and no longer working) calls for 579 new units, and worker-occupied units lost to "gentrification" and re-development will necessitate 376 new units.  Do the quick math:  that's 1185 new subsidized units in the next 8 years

APCHA's cost estimate for building new subsidized housing is $846/sf, based on costs at Burlingame, paid for land costs and other soft costs.  And, the average APCHA subsidized housing unit is 1000 sf in size.  So, back to simple math:  call it 1000 new units x 1000 sf x $850/sf.  That's a total of $850,000,000.  EIGHT HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS that the city needs to raise and spend on subsidized housing in the next 8 years.  Brace yourselves. 

WASTE WATCH

One of council's top ten goals for the year is to find new homes for various city departments while determining the best use(s) for the city-owned buildings that currently house the Aspen Art Museum and Mountain Rescue (both organizations are expected to vacate their respective facilities this year). Never mind that the city employs a "capital asset director," he and his staff "took a stab" at doing some of this work but determined it was over their heads so they needed to bring in some professionals... for $212,206 of YOUR money. Good grief. Please remind me again what the "capital asset director" and his staff actually do.

BURLINGAME PHASE 2 UPDATE

As new buyers of units in the second phase of Burlingame begin closing on their units and moving in, assistant city manager, aptly-named Barry Crook, is chomping at the bit for another $15 million to build more units out there. Regularly reminded by councilman Dwayne Romero that "reservations" for units "are a far cry from actual closings," Crook just won't give up! The 48 units currently available in buildings 1-4 are all but spoken for but not yet sold. And the reservation rate for the yet-to-be-built buildings 5-7 was recently just 50%. There is no longer a "lottery" for these units - if you qualify with APCHA and can get financing, you're in.

THE "YOU CAN'T MAKE IT UP" FILE: WE-CYCLE SUPPLIER BANKRUPT

It seems that the company that supplied Aspen's 100-bike, 13-station bike sharing program has declared bankruptcy, citing $50 million in debt. The Aspen We-Cycle folks don't see this as any kind of problem, but then again, this is the same group that considers its first year of operation a whopping success with $142,000 in operating costs and $146,000 in revenue. Oh, but don't forget -- as they continue to -- the program's $500,000 in initial subsidies and investment, including $6000 from the city and another $24,666 from Pitkin County.

SECOND HOMEOWNERS - A SURVEY

Who knows what this is all about, but the Aspen Times is conducting a survey of second homeowners and visitors. It's a brief questionnaire that includes demographic and lifestyle topics. Any chance to give a voice to our vital second homeowner community is A-OK with me, although we have a long way to go! Go to www.AspenTimes.com and look for the "Visitor and Second Homeowner Survey Invitation" on the homepage.

FOOD TAX REFUND TIME

It's that time of year again! Get your $50 food tax refund! In order to receive this, you MUST have lived within the city limits of Aspen for the entire 2013 year AND be a registered voter in the City of Aspen. HERE is the form. Deadline is April 15, 2014. Any questions, please call (970)920-5040.

Monday
Feb032014

ISSUE # 102: He Kinda Looks Like sANTa Claus

  "You're a monster, Mr. Grinch / Your heart's an empty hole / Your brain is full of spiders, you have garlic in your soul / Mr. Grinch / I wouldn't touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole. 

You're a foul one, Mr. Grinch / You're a nasty, wasty skunk / Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk / Mr. Grinch / The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote: Stink, stank, stunk! 

You're a rotter, Mr. Grinch / You're the king of sinful sots / Your heart's a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots / Mr. Grinch! / You're a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce! 

You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch / You really are a heel / You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as an eel / Mr Grinch! / You're a bad banana with a greasy black peel."     --- Dr. Seuss

A RED ANT HOLIDAY TRADITION

'Tis the season for The Red Ant's annual holiday missive.  After three years set to the tune of "Twas the night before Christmas," I'm singing a different tune in 2013.  For inspiration and to warm you up, here is the last stanza of the "real" song: 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing

Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree!

Got it?  Now remember, the most important line to hit right is, of course, "five golden rings," sung slowly and with emphasis for dramatic effect as "FIVE GOL-DEN RINGS."  Ok, so now that you're all tuned up, here they are: 

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, ASPEN-STYLE

On the first day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

A hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the second day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the third day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the fourth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the fifth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Dogs AT Burlingame (remember: "five gol-den rings")

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the sixth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the seventh day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the eighth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the ninth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the tenth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Caribbean rotations

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Steve Barwick gave to me

Ongoing lawsuits

Caribbean rotations

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

*** At The Red Ant, the fun never ends....

Holiday blessings to you, your family and friends! ***

APPENDIX

For further information on topics featured above, click through to the relevant issue(s) of The Red Ant:

  • Steve Barwick is the $170K/year lazy and incompetent city manager of Aspen (Issue #41)
  • Ongoing lawsuits: the city is embroiled in numerous costly lawsuits (Issue  #97)
  • Caribbean Rotations:  retirees in subsidized housing can rent their units out seasonally to qualified employees (Issue #94)
  • Housing Mitigation: the city is working to increase the fees on development and expansions in order to build more and more subsidized housing  (Issues #88 and #89)
  • Bike Sharing eyesores: the county government kicked in $200K to subsidize Aspen's bike sharing program that has an abysmal business plan and is heavily subsidized. The city of Aspen approved the hideous kiosks all over town. (Issue #96)
  • Fees on private rentals: the city is chasing down free market property owners to collect a 1% lodging tax on rentals of these properties  (Issue #78)
  • Geothermal drilling: the city, on a tip from 19th century miners, spent nearly $300K drilling for hot water below Aspen, in hopes of harnessing a clean green energy source, to no avail (Issue #96)
  • Housing needs assumptions:  (Issue  #88 and #89)
  • Dogs at Burlingame:  In an effort to spur interest in the next phase of the beleaguered subsidized housing project, the city is attempting to waive the "no dogs" policy that they agreed to in order to build the project in the first place (Issue  #88)
  • Parklets in the streets: the city proposed eliminating more parking spaces in town in order to subsidize outdoor street-side outdoor dining spaces for select restaurants (Issue  #88)
  • New bus stops: The city of Aspen bends over backwards for RFTA, including a $5M bathroom upgrade to Rubey Park on the docket for 2014 and allowing for 28 buses to be parked along Durant Street, despite falling ridership in recent years (Issues #98 and #99)
  • Laws he won't obey: city refuses to pay court-mandated legal fees to Marilyn Marks (Issue #81); city staff overturns prior council decision to allow snow polo in Wagner Park (Issue #101)
  • And a hydro plant he just will not let die:  (Issue # 101) ) Or go to www.TheRedAnt.com and search "hydro."  It's the most covered topic of the first 101 issues.
Wednesday
Dec182013

ISSUE # 101: Barwick -- Oooh That TyrANT

"Withholding information is the essence of tyranny.  Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship." -- Bruce Coville 

CITY MANAGER IN CONTROL AND OUT OF CONTROL

Despite the laws of the land, city council refuses to acknowledge that lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick works for them.  Instead, they listen to well-scripted and rehearsed presentations by city staffers (Barwick's employees) that make various cases for new projects, severe restrictions and especially more spending.  When council receives only one side of each issue, and only as much information as staff deems necessary to provide them, they are proving to be a body that rubberstamps most, if not all, "staff recommendations."  Sadly, this group is not one to ask the hard questions; and in many cases, they ask no questions at all!  

In the recent history of Aspen governance, Mick not-withstanding, the mayor (with the collaboration of council) set policy for the city.  Imagine a city manager bossing the likes of Bill Stirling, John Bennett, Rachel Richards or Helen Klanderud around!?  Not a chance.  But in the Mick era, things changed.  Mick's lack of managerial acumen and his deplorable social skills created the need for a city manager who, in desperate search for an employment contract, would skirt the law and enact any and all capers designed by the malevolent Mick to achieve his socialist goals.  Payback is hell, and that payback was a 10-year, $170K/year contract for the lazy and incompetent, Mick-lackey, city manager Steve Barwick.  It was astonishing to watch council rubber stamp Mick's desire to saddle our community with this buffoon in 2010, despite a LONG list of Barwick's poor decisions and inept management decisions. (See Issue #41.)

 

Empowered now with a lengthy contract and gifted with a neophyte council, Barwick is solely steering the ship.  The fact that council put forth a list of its priorities for the year means absolutely nothing to the man in charge.  He is far more focused on keeping his 300 employees employed and spending as much as he can from the public coffers so as to justify even more next year.

Never mind that our city charter (see Section 6) specifically states, "The (city) manager shall be responsible to council for the proper administration of all affairs of the city."  The charter goes on to specify staff hiring, training, supervision and firing roles, preparation of budget and fiscal reports, attendance at council meetings, contracts with public utilities, etc - all very administrative tasks!  The city manager is encouraged to participate in council discussions in an ADVISORY capacity.  NO WHERE does it state that the city manager creates or drives policy for the city.  THAT is council's job!

Message to council:  Get a grip!  You are off to a good start together, the five of you.  You seem to work well together.  Steve, you've changed the tenor in council chambers and the community thanks you for respecting everyone's time with the new, efficient meetings.  But review the city charter.  It's only 32 pages long!  Learn the laws!  Steve Barwick and everyone on his staff work for US, and you have been elected by US to manage these guys.  Their policies are NOT our policies.  They don't get to HAVE policies.  YOU set the policies; THEY execute what YOU tell them to.  Period.  Not the other way around.

Here's what I'm talking about:

THE HYDRO PLANT: CITY STAFF STILL SPENDING & BUILDING

In the dark days of the November off-season, Barwick's water weasels were trying to finagle more money out of council to move the hydro plant forward.  The request was for $40K for studies and permitting to go to bids on finishing the hydro plant's penstock, tailrace, dissipation structure and energy transmission lines, likely a $1M project that they intended to begin in early 2014.  In other words, defying the will of the voters.  Thankfully, astute citizens caught on and were able to notify council about the shenanigans and effectively shut it down, for now.  (No, council had not been informed, nor were they aware that city staff was still working diligently toward completion of the project.) 

For one, the city continues to spend thousands of dollars (estimated today at nearly $1M) on outside legal assistance to protect water rights that can ONLY be used for a hydro plant or similar project.  In addition, city staff is pushing public works projects under the guise of public safety that are for one purpose only - to complete the hydro plant.

Regarding the litigation, city uses such as potable water, water for fighting fires, general municipal water and micro hydro in the stream flow are not in question, nor are these uses affected by the litigation.  Continued litigation means only one thing - a desire to complete the hydro plant.  Oh yeah, and increased expenses.  How could I forget?

Now, if the city has a good reason to continue its pursuit of hydro water rights in Castle Creek, it should be easy to articulate this to the public.  For the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on water counsel, council should ASK and be explicitly informed why these expenditures must continue before approving them, and specifically why Steve Barwick is pushing his staff to continue spending without council direction or public oversight.

It's definitely not over, however.  Barwick managed to finagle $25K from council to pursue approval of a CDOT easement near the hydro plant.  It's a right-of-way issue that needs to be resolved before the hydro plant can operate.  These guys are going to push and push, likely with the idea of waiting out the sitting council and gaining approval to complete the hydro plant with the next group.  Besides, Barwick has vowed to bring the penstock issue back in the near future.  And the city still touts the CCEC on its website as a foregone conclusion.

STAFF ASKS FOR MONEY THAT IT HAS ALREADY SPENT - ON MORE COAL-FIRED ENERGY

The water weasels in city hall also asked council for an $800K budget supplemental for power already paid to MEAN (the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska - the city's energy vendor) last year.  The $800K supplemental request was needed simply because the city's energy mix is too hydro heavy today!  (Note: there was no supporting documentation for this amount presented to council, nor did they ask for it.)

Here's what happened. The existing Reudi  Reservoir hydro plant and the Maroon Creek hydro plant had significantly lower power production than originally projected due to drought conditions in 2012 and 2013.  Therefore, the $800K request reflects the increase in power purchases from MEAN at higher rates due to low output of city-owned hydropower.  That's a pretty big miss! Now consider -- building yet another hydro plant would not be wise because we are already top-heavy in hydroelectric power.  Obviously, drought conditions drastically affect hydropower production!  The city's exaggerated expectations for the CCEC hydro plant could cause a similar and ongoing scenario.  With its inability to plan properly for lost hydropower production during low flow years, the city would face not only budget deficits but the need to purchase greater amounts of coal-fired energy from MEAN at premium prices.  The answer?  A more balanced renewable energy mix!

STAFF TRIES TO CONVERT OPEN SPACE TO HOUSING WITHOUT A VOTE

The city is currently undertaking a planning effort for city employee "housing" on Parks & Open Space property on Cemetery Lane.  Now let's get one thing straight, the Cemetery Lane neighborhood study from 2000 (adopted by council) repeatedly asked about the possibility of multi-family housing in the neighborhood.  For those in the know, this was the city's way of asking if city-owned property could be converted for subsidized housing in this area.  The inquiry received a resounding thumbs down.  Furthermore, it is the law (City Charter, section 13.4) that the conversion of Open Space to alternative uses requires a vote of the people.

The Open Space land in question is currently used by the city as an industrial yard and warehouse for equipment and materials for the city's parks -- obviously an inappropriate use for public parks in Aspen!  Imagine if they tried to pull this stunt at Paepcke Park on Main Street!  Furthermore, if the site in question (for multi-family housing) were privately owned, there is no way, no how the city would consider such a conversion. Clearly, the city does not apply the same standards to itself that it demands of its citizens and property owners!

Again, this is but another example of Barwick's staff hatching a nefarious plot that can't pass legal muster, but with a clueless council these things stand a chance because staff can sway them!  Again, astute citizens noticed the shenanigans and brought these to council's attention. 

On a related note, why should city employees be qualified for separate housing from APCHA subsidized housing? 

LAWS BENT TO ENABLE SNOW POLO AT WAGNER PARK

You've seen it - snow guns making snow in Wagner Park this past week.  Why, you ask, amidst the heaviest early season snowfall in recent memory?  What is going on?   

 

 

Well, apparently, "someone" city hall is a proponent of Snow Polo in Wagner Park, or has been "convinced" to be.  You see, this was NEVER supposed to occur in Aspen's crown jewel park following the debacle in 2011 (when a mare was grievously injured and had to be put down on-site, and the cherished park's turf was ripped to shreds).  At the time, council discussions yielded permissions for the event to be held in Rio Grande Park and on the Marolt Open Space, but "never again" at Wagner Park.  It's now 2013 and the rules have mysteriously and abruptly been changed.  A vague and arbitrary agreement (with no pubic process) has been struck between the city parks department and event promoters that effectively allows the event back in the middle of town, despite 21 stringent "conditions," written in 2012 to specifically preclude this from ever happening again at Wagner Park. 

Originally, it was specifically mandated that the unlikely early season quantity of "18 inches of unpacked and unconsolidated natural snow exists on the proposed polo arena zone," however, this was recently changed to allow "a combination of natural snow and man-made snow that provides 'appropriate protection and depth' determined by the Parks Department staff in the field that will provide the same protection level and snow density as 18 inches of unpacked and unconsolidated snow on the proposed polo arena zone."  Just a little vague and subjective, huh?!  I have nothing against snow polo.  That's not my point; my concern has to do with the vague agreement.  And the secret rule-changing.  And at whose direction this occurred.  My investigations have yielded only the fact that many parks department employees are vehemently opposed to having this event at Wagner Park, but are doing so at the direction of parks director Jeff Woods and our pal, lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick!

The "best" (and most horrifically hypocritical) part of the irresponsible agreement was the idea that if there is a snow-depth shortfall, event promoters would contract with SkiCo to make snow that would be TRUCKED to Wagner Park.  Somehow, this hair-brained idea passed muster by council - again, nodding their foolish heads without asking questions.  This, in our tree-hugging, carbon-emission fearing town, no less!  Estimates were 150 truckloads.  Really.  (Steve Skadron DID however question the irresponsible use of municipal water for this silly endeavor....)  Later, this ridiculousness morphed into the already-in-motion make-snow-at-the-park-for-9-days program.  Attached is a photo of this nonsense in action.  And, hired SkiCo snowcats belch their diesel exhaust while grooming the park early in the mornings, packing the man-made stuff.

Concerned neighbors challenged city staff that Wagner Park is already closed 120 days a year.  This was quickly disputed, but promises by parks director Jeff Woods to provide "an accurate number" have not been fulfilled.

Even the Aspen Times agrees.  A recent editorial (read it HERE) blasts council for its "improper vetting" of this event.  The Times went on to comment, "Six months into the new council's term, it seems scrutiny doesn't appear to be part of the entity's basic make-up... Discussions are warranted when it comes to decisions that could be detrimental to community property."  Bravo.

Furthermore, when council decisions are made to ensure maximum public access to our public assets, should city staff bureaucrats be able to change these decisions on a whim?

CITY OFFICIALS CAMPAIGN TO CREATE THE ILLUSION OF DEMAND AT BURLINGAME

City staff recently presented council with "encouraging" numbers that allegedly show strong demand for the next phase of Burlingame.  Assistant to Barwick, aptly-named Barry Crook, reported that buildings 1-4 of Phase 2 have a 97% reservation rate.  Obviously, "reservations" are one thing; closings are another! This is where the real answers lie.  Crook is already chomping at the bit for another $15M from council to get started on buildings 5-7.  Sadly, mayor Skadron read the reservation numbers as an indication of "pent up demand."  How about "desire."  Good luck with getting those mortgages. 

Thankfully, Dwayne Romero chided Crook, stating, "Reservations are a far cry from closings." He and Adam Frisch would like to see a 100% closing rate before moving forward.  Ya think?!

DRACONIAN HOUSING MITIGATION FEES COMING SOON IN 2014

Temporarily tabled in 2013, drastically increased fees for subsidized housing mitigation are on the near-term docket at city hall.  No, these are not council priorities either - they are coming straight from Barwick.

The most recent city study states 1000 (yes, ONE THOUSAND) new subsidized housing units are "needed" over the next 10 years to compensate primarily for retirees staying in their units.  At the current housing office estimate of $850/sf to build, and assuming an average of 1000sf/unit, that comes to (conservatively) $850 MILLION DOLLARS of new construction in the next decade - in the subsidized housing sector alone!

This appears to be priority #1 at city hall.  I will be following it closely, but fasten your seatbelts.  This one is coming fast!

To brush up, I suggest re-reading Issue #88 and Issue #89 on the subsidized housing jihad in Aspen.

CAN'T MAKE IT UP:  MRS. BARWICK GONE WILD!

The Red Ant was recently attacked.  Thankfully, it was only verbally, but it was quite a scary encounter none-the-less.  A woman named Shirley Tipton (a.k.a. Mrs. Steve Barwick) went nuts on me at the Elks Club on a Sunday evening during the recent Broncos-Patriots game.  I was enjoying the game with friends (until the Pats rallied for the win) when a wild-eyed and clearly unhinged lunatic approached our table and unleashed a loud tirade directed my way.  Provoked and egged on by self-proclaimed "Barwick's best friend" Rick Head (ersatz realtor and subsidized housing board member), most of what she rambled was simply unintelligible, but she kept repeating, "He's a good man. He's a good man."  Directed by several Elks to please return to her seat, Mrs. Barwick did eventually go away and calm down.

Many thanks to the many kind Elks who contacted me that evening and the day following to apologize for Mrs. Barwick's "unstable" behavior.  It was a sight to behold, that's for sure!  (I've heard the Elks have a video of her whole performance, including the pre-attack scheming between this loon and Rick Head.)  Apparently Mrs. Barwick is terribly threatened by my first amendment right to investigate and write commentary about her husband, a public figure and chief administrator of the city.  How dare The Red Ant do this and challenge HER entitlement to a nice city-owned home on the golf course in America's most expensive town?! 

If there is anything worse than being lazy and incompetent, it's being married to it!

Monday
Nov252013

ISSUE # 100: A Celebratory BouffANT

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

                       -- George Orwell

WHO IS THE RED ANT?

She is me. I'm her. My name is Elizabeth Milias. I'm originally from San Marino, California, but have lived full-time in Aspen since 2008. Prior to this, I worked in the Pentagon as a political appointee in the George W. Bush (43) administration, where I served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under both Secretaries of Defense Rumsfeld and Gates. I ski over 100 days a season, regularly hike Smuggler, root for the Broncos, enjoy my "Wednesday B" shift at the Thrift Shop, hang with my pals in the Hotel Jerome's Living Room, breakfast at Main Street Bakery's "shared table," collect vintage Nancy Drew mysteries, and can frequently be found at the Bangkok Bowl counter where I get my spicy Thai fix! My background is in strategic communication, and I have my undergraduate degree in economics from UCLA and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (with coursework at the Medill School of Journalism). My ties to Aspen stem from my first job out of college in the marketing and public affairs department of the Aspen Skiing Co. in the late 80's.  

When I returned to Aspen in 2008, I saw the changes in Aspen. And no, I did not lament the bygone era of the Quiet Years. As a marketer first and foremost, I celebrated the leaps and bounds by my former employer: successfully building a highly desirable and accessible, first-rate, year-round, international and world class travel destination. I additionally embraced the "infill" effort that concentrated development in town in an effort increase vitality and prevent sprawl. Amidst the effects of the economic downturn, what I also saw was a vast class warfare divide that had infected a previously copacetic community that prided itself on sharing our collective experience with folks of every background and from every corner of the globe. Sure, there had always been a "town and gown" scenario, but without the vitriol so present today. Much of this quickly became attributable to the sitting mayor, Mick Ireland, and the pervasive "soak the rich" mentality that had been embraced by so many locals over the years of his tenure in public office at both the county and in city hall. I also saw an enormous "entitlement class" firmly ensconced in the community, primarily living in subsidized housing -- not in rentals or as the intended step-up to the free market in town or elsewhere -- but for life! (This was ABSOLUTELY not the intent of the program I remembered from the 80's; besides, where had all the youthful one-season, post-college "ski bums" gone?) Just observations, of course, but I sure didn't like what I was seeing.

Layered on top of this social upheaval was a bureaucracy-centered local government with an all-powerful city manager whose priorities were keeping his 300+/- employees in their jobs, spending $100 million in public funds every year doing it, and driving his own misguided and non-representative policies, all with the willing complicity of a head-bobbing and rubber-stamping city council. And yes, with Mick as mayor - an accomplice of the bureaucrats, ruling with an iron fist. Pretty despicable.

The straw that broke this camel's back was the Burlingame subsidized housing project. City materials in support of a 2005 vote for the project grossly understated the cost to taxpayers: $14.7 million (or a subsidy of just $62,500 per unit). In 2008, it was exposed that Burlingame had NO budget, and the per-unit subsidies were actually $372K, not $62,500 as promised to voters. The city (Mick, Jack, Barwick and all their cronies) embarked on an obfuscation campaign that only furthered to muddy the already filthy waters. Lies, cover-ups and random blame were rampant. It was during this time that I met Marilyn Marks, who had been studying the Burlingame fiasco as a member of the Citizen's Budget Task Force and writing letters to the editor about the outrageous and unethical goings-on. We were appalled at the deliberate attempts by the city to destroy materials and shut down websites that corroborated our findings. The local papers and others on council simply stood by and did nothing.

City hall was getting away with blatant corruption. And, in our opinion, much of the oversight (cover-up?) stemmed from the reticence of the local press to research and investigate the facts of the story. Thwarted in our efforts to convince the editors of the two daily papers to dive into the issue, connect the dots and shine a bright light on the illicit behavior of Mick, lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick and their complicit cronies, we knew the time was right to do something on our own to correct the record and opine on the nefarious goings on. It was 2008, so the medium would clearly be electronic: frequent enough to remain current, thorough enough to be relevant, and, most of all, fun to read. Fueled by countless lattes at Peach's (nee Zele) and blessed with generous "contributions" of email lists to get us started, The Red Ant was born!

We've had a bumpy ride! Dead animals (and other detritus) on our doorsteps, personal threats warranting restraining orders, regular 1-finger salutes from the mayor (Mick), hate mail, excoriating letters to the editors, foulmouthed postings on local blogs - you name it! Breaking stories like "the city knows how you voted," "the plastic bag 'fee' is actually an illegal tax" and "the hydro plant will cost millions more to build and operate than it can recover in energy revenue over the next half century" firmly put us in the crosshairs of Mick, Jack Johnson, Phyllis Bronson, Pete Louras and every hater in the entrenched political class this side of the Continental Divide. But a wise man once said, "If they're reacting, you're getting at something. It would be much worse to be ignored." And with each issue, subscription requests rolled in and our reach and influence became greater and greater. We were certainly not ignored!

In 2009, Marilyn boldly ran against Mick for mayor and was narrowly defeated in Aspen's inaugural Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) election. The controversy surrounding this election remains unresolved to this day. Under the terms of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), Marilyn sued the city to view the ballot images that were shown on GrassRoots TV on election night. The case was dismissed at city-friendly district court, but Marilyn prevailed on appeal. Council, with Mick at the helm and corrupt then-city attorney John Worcester egging them on, voted to challenge the appellate court's ruling at the Colorado Supreme Court level, but the Supremes refused to hear the case so the appellate ruling stands. Marilyn gained viewing access to the ballots and was additionally awarded legal fees that, to this day, the city refuses to pay. Mick's and John Worcester's personal vendettas against Marilyn continue today under the direction of current and equally compromised city attorney Jim True/False. It will cost the city over $300K when all is said and done. And it's far from done.

For 4 months in early 2010, The Red Ant hit the "pause" button. It was time to decide where to go next. The "experiment" had worked; we had a loyal and interested following that rather enjoyed this new voice on the local political scene. At least that's what you were telling us. After much discussion and consideration (and totally amicably), Marilyn opted to leave The Red Ant to pursue her open records case against the city. Notably, her case and its state- and nationwide implications have led Marilyn to a second "career" as a very effective and successful election integrity activist.

I then took the reign of The Red Ant solo, and, with Issue #40: VacANT, committed to continuing this new era of investigative journalism and political commentary, Aspen-style. They're not ignoring me yet, and the bumps continue, as expected. I'm regularly tormented by the haters (and even some of their wives) and have been kept from community boards for being "too controversial," but I'm also proud to have made an impact when it concerns issues I that care about. With just over 2000 subscribers, The Red Ant regularly enjoys a 50+% "open" rate, and on average I hear from 100+/- of you with each issue. Here are some interesting stats on the first 5 years and 100 issues of The Red Ant:

TOP 10 MOST FREQUENTLY COVERED TOPICS

  • Voting/Elections/IRV
  • Hydro Plant
  • Subsidized Housing - in general
  • City Recycling/Plastic Bag Tax/Geothermal Drilling
  • Mick
  • Burlingame
  • Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP)
  • Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH) expansion
  • Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA)
  • Lazy and Incompetent City Manager Steve Barwick and the City Hall Bureaucracy

TOP 10 MOST-READ ISSUES (by percentage)

  • Issue #97: ByzANTine Conundrums (7/18/2013)
  • Issue #4: Chairman Mao's Diner and the Veggie Burger Requirement (8/25/2008)
  • Issue #92: ANT Alert - Vote! (5/4/2013)
  • Issue #7: Oops! Burlingame Brochure Error (9/7/2008)
  • Issue #91: The Election PageANT is On (4/20/2013)
  • Issue #19: Culture of Intimidation (11/2/2008)
  • Issue #93: ANT Alert - Election Recap (5/8/13)
  • Issue #90: Is the May Election RelevANT? (3/22/13)
  • Issue #89: Power: An InebriANT (2/25/2013)
  • Issue #27: Phyllis Bronson's Shakedown (2/5/09)

THE RED ANT'S POLITICAL INFLUENCE & NOTABLE PREDICTIONS / VICTORIES

  • Burlingame $75+ million over-spend/cover-up exposed (Issues # 7 and #32)
  • "Get Jack OFF City Council" campaign/Jack Johnson defeated in 2009 council bid
  • Hydro Plant exposed as financial and environmental disaster; community opposition begins (Issue #45)
  • The Red Ant speaks about "Secrecy at City Hall" at Business Luncheon in 2010 (Issue #48)
  • "Hit the Road Jack J" campaign/Jack Johnson defeated in 2010 BOCC bid (Issue #51)
  • Rob Ittner elected to BOCC in 2010 (Issue #51)
  • Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) repealed in 2010 (Issue #51)
  • University of Colorado sells The Given Institute for $13.8M; building torn down in 2011 (Issues #49, #54 and #55)
  • "Sick of Mick" campaign of 2011 signals community's Mick-fatigue (Issues #58, #59 and #61)
  • Voting oversight at city hall for 2011 election (Issue #62)
  • Adam Frisch elected to city council in 2011 (Issues #61 and #62)
  • Lawsuit challenging Plastic Bag Tax in 2012 (Issue #82)
  • Advisory vote on Hydro Plant completion defeated in 2012 (Issue #86)
  • City's draconian Subsidized Housing Mitigation plans exposed (then tabled, temporarily) in 2013 (Issues #88 and #89)
  • City's Geothermal Drilling Experiment predicted and revealed to be $273K wasted (Issue #96

THE RED ANT'S PAINFUL LOSSES

  • Ordinance 22 of 2008 passes, preventing the "combination" of 2 free market condominiums because this "destroys" potential worker housing (Issues #9, #10, #11)
  • IRV implemented in 2009 despite controversial, confusing and untested tabulation methodologies (Issues #29, #29b, #30)
  • Burlingame Phase 2 proceeds with city as developer (Issue #32)
  • Mick wins re-election in 2009, defeating Marilyn Marks in controversial IRV election
  • The City knows how you voted in 2009 and likely in every past election (Issue #36)
  • Lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick granted a $170K/year contract (Issue #41)
  • $50 million bond for Aspen Valley Hospital expansion passes in 2010 (Issues #44 and #51)
  • City grants Aspen Art Museum permission to build a HUGE new building without public process, the result of city's lawsuit settlement with the property's former owners (Issue #49)
  • Bag tax passes; called a "fee" (Issues #55, #56 and #69)
  • Mick re-elected to 3rd term in 2011 with 50.6% of the vote; defeats Ruth Kruger (Issue #62)
  • Bike sharing launches in Aspen with $200K in government subsidies despite abysmal financials and a joke of a business plan (Issue #96 and #97

ANT GETS INK: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

In an ongoing attempt to spread the good word, I also write on occasion to the local papers. Here are several of my favorite contributions to the local editorial pages:

AND DON'T FORGET

For giggles, take a minute to re-visit:

CAN'T MAKE IT UP: ORIGIN OF THE NAME "THE RED ANT"

In August 2008, "the newsletter" was close to becoming a reality. But it had no name, and the name would be EVERYTHING. It simply had to stand on its own and be memorable. Upon receiving a particularly "good" email list that signaled we'd be reaching the "right" local audience, I exclaimed with glee, "I haven't had this much fun since putting red ants in the boys tent at camp!" Never mind I'd never gone to that kind of camp, somehow the words just came out and The Red Ant was officially ready for prime time in Aspen.

 

THORNS IN MY SIDE

Looking to the future, The Red Ant is committed to chasing down the real stories behind the shenanigans at city hall. Among others, these are the hot-button local topics I am watching closely and researching today:

  • Hydro Plant: despite the 2012 vote to cease funding, and without council direction, city staffers forge ahead to complete the Castle Creek Energy Center
  • Subsidized Housing Mitigation: draconian proposed requirements drastically increase housing mitigation fees, ostensibly to provide "a critical mass" of subsidized housing, but more likely to punish free market property owners for the crime of ownership and desire to expand or redevelop their properties
  • RFTA: the $45 million upgrade predicts huge ridership increases
  • Parking: Before we re-build the undesirable Rio Grande Parking Garage, have we considered all other options?
  • Rubey Park: do we really want a $5M parking lot for 28 RFTA buses in the center of town? Is this the very best option? What are the viable alternatives?
  • Barwick: the lazy and incompetent $170K/year city manager pursues his own policies and agenda without informing council or getting their direction or approval
  • Cemetery Lane Open Space: the city proposes converting public open space for employee housing despite charter provisions that mandate a public vote for such alternative uses 

These stories, and other inevitable nonsense of the day, will be featured in future issues. I'll keep writing as long as you keep reading.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

I am often asked, "How can I help?" The easiest way is simple: vote. Your vote ABSOLUTELY counts in our local elections. I will keep you informed, so please keep your voter registration current! If you cannot vote locally, it is EXTREMELY helpful to local candidates and issue committees when you make a donation to their campaign(s). Even $20 makes a difference. I promise to let you know how to contact the various campaigns. And notably, in the post-Mick era, the very real fear of retribution for contributing to local political causes seems to be subsiding. And, as for The Red Ant, this endeavor is a labor of love (obviously) and a free subscription. That will always be the case, but if you are interested in supporting this effort, please feel free to contribute: 

The Red Ant

PO Box 4662

Aspen, CO 81612

 

And remember, if you hit the "reply" button at the top of your issue of The Red Ant, your email will come directly to me. Be in touch! Let me know what you think!

Thank you for your ongoing interest and support of government transparency, fiscal accountability and election integrity in Aspen.

Elizabeth

Saturday
Oct192013

ISSUE # 99: Hardly tANTalizing News

"Here's to the crazy ones.The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."  

                       -- Apple, Inc.

The newness of their elected roles is beginning to wear off, as demonstrated by council's acceptance of the usual shenanigans in city hall.  Several of these capers are not council-directed, but by virtue of the fact that lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick simply steams ahead with his own agenda as though council does not exist, council is already heeding the direction of the bureaucrats rather than the other way around.  Council: Barwick and city staff work for you!!  Get it straight!!

 

COUNCIL PRIORITIES: A JOKE TO STAFF

Recall in Issue #98, council recently put forth its top 10 goals for the year.  I don't recall seeing anything there about "improvements to the Aspen Recreation Center (ARC)," nor did these goals prioritize the reconstruction of the Rubey Park bus station in town.  (According to the goals, Rubey Park's future is to be contemplated as part of a master plan for the malls and Wagner Park.)  But both of these projects are surging forward with serious momentum.  The city is asking the public whether they want parking for 18, 23 or 25 buses along Durant Street at a new and improved $4-$5 million bus depot, and they're already cobbling money together to make this happen in the very near term.  

In addition, the Aspen Rec Center (ARC), just 10 years old, is apparently on-deck for a major cash infusion of your money.  Needless to say, a major addition to the ARC is not listed as a council priority for the coming year, but "Chekov's Country Club" on Maroon Creek Road is coming soon! The city has hired a $52K consultant to determine what is lacking at the publicly-subsidized facility and to prepare a business plan that outlines for council what to pay for and how.  Public meetings were recently held; early items for the "wish list" include an outdoor pool, indoor tennis courts, an improved gym and an indoor field house.  Perhaps even an on-site hotel. The ARC has a $4 million annual budget; $2 million in revenue and a $2 million public subsidy.    

If council's designated priorities mean NOTHING to city staff, then why bother having them? Mayor Skadron, on whose authority is Barwick directing his staff to move forward on these non-prioritized projects?  

 

STAFF REWARDS ITSELF WITH TRIPS TO ITALY

Mayor Mick was fond of international travel on the taxpayer's dime.  And, sadly, the tradition continues.  Aspen's Sister Cities program has a sketchy financial relationship with the city, but this fall's boondoggle has taken on monumental new proportions.  With a sister city relationship with the small town of Abetone (Italy) in the works, the city of Aspen sent over the welcome wagon from hell last week.  Sure, it made sense for Steve Skadron to go.  He is, after all, our mayor.  And my guess is that he dressed appropriately (no tank tops and ratty exercise attire) as the city's foremost ambassador.  But for lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick to go as well?  What?? He's hardly the face of Aspen we should be putting forth!  Besides, given that the "meat" of these sister city programs centers on exchange programs for local kids, why not someone from the schools?  

The taxpayer-funded entourage additionally included the city's PR flack and the parks director.  Surely these are employee perks (did they win the raffle at last year's Christmas party?) because there is no good reason for you and I to be buying $1200 airline tickets and paying per diem for these useless strap-hangers!  Thankfully, the ever-gracious Debbie Braun of ACRA joined the entourage, and NOT at taxpayer expense.  Her presence surely lent much-needed class and business acumen to the sojourn. Council, what were you thinking by approving such a boondoggle?!  Just because it's been done in the past doesn't make it ok.

WAGNER PARKING: ANT READERS LIKE IT

The Red Ant was surprised by the large number of readers who responded positively to the idea of an underground parking garage beneath Wagner Park.  And if not buses additionally under the park, then certainly at Main Street and Galena (think: at the current parking garage by the courthouse) or out of town (perhaps at Buttermilk) so they don't stack up right in town in front of the mountain.  The sentiment was clear:  cars are a reality, and we need to find a solution to our dire parking problems.  A centrally-located in-town garage underneath a park is not a new concept.  Recall Union Square in San Francisco and Mellon Square in Pittsburgh.  This is a time-tested concept and one that should not be casually dismissed.

Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen echoed the growing sentiment to look beyond simply enlarging Rubey Park. His rational piece espouses the virtues of an urban transit hub at a reconfigured Library Plaza, which would provide a more centralized focus for transit along Main Street, substantially reduce in-town bus traffic in residential and high pedestrian traffic areas, dramatically cut carbon emissions, and offer a more welcoming experience than what is currently available at Rubey Park. Read it HERE.

But surprise, surprise.  Lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick came up with what he believes will SOLVE our parking woes.  Get ready -- it's a real doozy!  Barwick seems to think that a new and remodeled version of the Rio Grande parking lot (by the jail and courthouse) will become enticing to all -- despite it's inconvenient location -- with the addition of free (read: publicly subsidized) PEDI-CABS!  Yes, you read that right.  Pedi-cabs. Like bicycle rickshaws.  And maybe even golf carts. Lest this moron forget, Aspen enjoys WINTER conditions at least 7 months of the year!  I shudder at the thought of hopping into an open-air pedi-cab in a mid-winter blizzard in order to meet friends for cocktails across town at Brexi.  As it stands, the parking garage is projected to bring in $383K in 2014. Given $548K in expected expenses, you and I get to subsidize the difference. (This should tell you just what a loser the current public parking garage is!) As our highest paid municipal employee and CEO of the city, Barwick simply owes us a little bit more!  Ya think? Anything to advance his anti-car, enormous Rubey Park bus station expansion agenda, I suppose.

THE REAL IMPACT OF REGULATION

A reader of The Red Ant recently posited that perhaps local-owned businesses ought to get some special deal(s) from the city in order to initially start-up and later survive.  The Red Ant hates "false markets," which is what this would create. I just cannot condone a special "secondary/subsidized" commercial layer for some locals whose business plans can't otherwise make it in an admittedly tough environment.  In my book, it's just called survival of the fittest.  Besides, it sounds like a huge step in the nanny-state direction for a municipality that already subsidizes so much of some folks' everyday lives, from buses, to bike races, to rec centers, to culture (Wheeler Opera House -- taxpayer subsidized at approx $3million/year), to food tax refunds, to housing, to.... you name it.

There is a solution, just a different solution.  Aspen doesn't need to give tax breaks to businesses; Aspen needs to reduce its costly regulations by about 75% so that a business can sustain itself on a reasonable margin.  

Subsidized housing mitigation alone is the single largest culprit. The cost is astronomical for any new commercial development, layered onto the millions collected annually from sales and RETT taxes. There is a river of money flowing from those who create (the developers) to those who consume (the 1560 hour per year service worker).

And housing is just the beginning.  The development fees, impact fees, etc. are so grotesquely out of scale with what should be a reasonably-arrived-at cost of providing whatever services or mitigating for whatever impact is generated that it's ridiculous.

Aspen has become a wealth siphon:  largely inhabited by part-time residents and visitors who, in their personal calculation of value, continue to be willing to pay the ever-increasing price(s) in order to maintain their residences and participate in all that is Aspen. For now. That's not all Aspen is of course, but that's how its economy works. But where is the cost-benefit line? At some point Aspen will reach it. We have to be close to it, don't we? You can't even build a slope-side ski lodge in Aspen because of all the regulation.  How long can it last?

RFTA:  BUS RAPID TRANSIT UP AND RUNNING

The $46.2 million bet has been placed.  With 13 new bus stations and 18 new buses converted to run on compressed natural gas, RFTA's enormous valley-wide overhaul is complete.   Admittedly, RFTA management states that there is no specific numeric goal for the project that was originally designed to increase ridership, however success will be determined by these increases.  Huh?  Recall that the $25 million federal grant didn't come with any strings attached such as metrics to justify the expense, therefore RFTA never bothered to come up with any.  And if RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship can be believed, he expects ridership to increase 25-30% over the next 2-3 years.  Go figure.  RFTA ridership was down 4.4% in 2012.

RFTA EXPANSION:  THE EFFECT ON REAL WAGES IN ASPEN
For the longest time, good help was hard to find.  This drove wages in Aspen upward based on the simple law of supply and demand. Not so, today.  The vastly improved bus system will quickly and comfortably bring more and more workers to Aspen from the hinterland -- so there will be no economic incentive for local employers to raise wages.  In fact, the plush new buses will make it even more appealing to even more down valley workers to make increasingly lengthy commutes.  More workers means more competition for jobs.  And competition for jobs does only one thing: it keeps wages low.  

This is certainly not good for the Aspen worker who lives in town, subsidized or otherwise. The cost of living in Aspen is incredibly high, but for many, the "lifestyle" justifies the trade-off.  It's a similar decision matrix for those who commute.  And when the commute itself becomes easy, warm and comfy (therefore less and less of a negative in the equation), more and more workers will be willing to do it.  There are no indicators that the cost of living in Aspen is ever going to decline, yet alone flatten out.  And as we continue to build and build more and more in-town subsidized housing inventory, there will be more and more local people working at low wages who can afford less and less. The new RFTA expansion has just effectively fattened the wallets of those who live in more affordable parts of the valley who are willing to ride our cushy subsidized buses to and fro.  And for those who live subsidized in town, there will be lower chances of increasing wages, and less and less they can afford to buy or do. This is going to get interesting.  

CAN'T MAKE IT UP

According to the response from a recent open records request of the city, The Red Ant has learned that since 2007, city hall has spent at least $830,000 on payments to two Denver and Boulder-based law firms assisting with its work on the hydro plant water rights lawsuit and FERC matters related to federal permits for the Castle Creek Energy Center (hydro plant).  The bills continue to roll in because the city has not stopped its work toward completion of the hydro plant despite the damning November 2012 vote. This incredible sum of taxpayer money does not include city staff time. How much green energy could have been purchased with THAT tidy (and counting) sum???

BAG TAX WINDFALL

To-date, the city of Aspen has collected $44,826 from the sale of paper bags at local grocery stores.  At 20 cents per, that's 224,130 paper bags!  Recall that the city is embroiled in a lawsuit over this controversial tax (which the city argues is a fee), the funding for which comes right out of the city's general fund.  So confident is the city that they will prevail, Mayor Skadron has already told his counterparts in Telluride to ignore Aspen's lawsuit and press on with similar tax in their town right away!  Aspen's newest tax revenue stream will fund "education efforts," but sadly not the kind so desperately needed by our schools.

CAN'T MAKE THIS UP EITHER

Remember in 2011 when vocal locals were up in arms at the thought of losing Little Annie's restaurant to a new development?  And remember how the city inserted itself into the brou-haha, eventually "swapping" a deed-restricted retention of Little Annie's at its current Hyman Avenue location (by designating it "historic") in exchange for granting approval to the new owner to build a 6900 sf penthouse in the adjoining building with substantial subsidized housing mitigation reductions?  Well, brou-haha be damned.  Seems now that the owner of Little Annie's, the restaurant itself, is soon to close the beloved local institution for good.  His choice. The "historic" structure will be remodeled as a restaurant and brought up to code as planned, but Little Annie's? Tootles. Sayonara. Ciao bella. In its place?  Who knows.  But the city's meddling mandates that the next tenant now operate a "local serving," therefore "affordable," establishment in the space, meaning they can only charge rates on par with those at similar deed-restricted eateries such as Justice Snow's at the city-owned Wheeler Opera House. (Notably, there's another similarly saddled 1800sf deed-restricted "local serving" restaurant space empty and available around the corner - in the basement space below where Cooper Street Pier / Bad Billy's once stood.  To-date: no takers.  Nobody likes to have their income forcibly capped by the city.)

R.I.P. HELEN

Aspen recently lost one of its own: former county commissioner and 3-term mayor Helen Klanderud.  Known as much, if not more, for her philanthropy and dedication to all aspects of our community, as her local political involvement, Helen's presence was felt by all, and she will be fondly remembered. Aspen Daily News columnist Paul Menter warmly, personally and graciously captured "Helen." Read it HERE.

Saturday
Oct192013

ISSUE # 98: SubstANTial Progress

"All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."  

                       -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

The trajectory is definitely encouraging. Our new council has coalesced and is beginning to assume its own personality. I like what I see. The meetings are notably more cordial, far shorter, and, perhaps most importantly, when our new mayor Steve Skadron, according to an insider, "is on the losing side of a vote, he goes with the flow, with respect." But we face many issues ahead, and these will surely test our elected leaders.

COUNCIL'S GOALS

With a welcome new focus on "process" as opposed to mandated actions (such as last year's "develop a bicycle priority master plan" ridiculousness), Council has prioritized the following issues for our community in the coming year:

  • Incentives (such as possible fee waivers, expedited reviews, development bonuses) to assist existing lodges and condos renovate in order to spruce up our aging bed base. Good idea, seeing as how it is highly unlikely that a new hotel will ever be built in Aspen. The more we can do to encourage the rehabilitation and modernization of our existing inventory will hopefully serve to staunch the hemorrhaging of our tourists to resorts with more, newer and better lodging choices.
  • Adopt a wildfire mitigation plan that provides a workable evacuation and recovery process should Aspen ever face a catastrophic wildfire. Sun Valley, Idaho, had a real scare last month. We should definitely have a solid contingency plan in place.
  • Devise a master plan for city offices that streamlines the office space needs for our municipal government over the long term. City offices are currently spread throughout the town, and for several of these spaces, we pay above-market rents. This makes no sense whatsoever when the city owns properties that could and should be converted to office space where needed. But a "master plan"? Really? I simply don't see a major re-haul of city hall at taxpayer expense anytime in the near future. Keep it simple!
  • Draft a "climate change resiliency plan" that will keep the community viable and vibrant for when "climate change" wreaks havoc upon our skiing-based economy. Is this REALLY the role of the city? SkiCo has done a commendable job by diversifying its non-winter on-mountain offerings, and its investment(s) in snow "augmentation" has proven to be tremendous. That is to be commended. But isn't Aspen's aggressive "Canary Initiative" enough? (The goal for Aspen's municipal utility is to provide 100% renewable power by 2015. It currently provides 70-80%.) Besides, the city hardly has a successful track record with its recent decisions to enter the renewable energy business - recall the hydro plant and the geothermal drilling experiment.  This is not a debate about climate change, just a question of whether it is the city of Aspen's job.
  • Determine the best uses for the Mountain Rescue cabin and the soon-to-be-vacated Aspen Art Museum space, city-owned parcels that provide great opportunities for rental. Well yes, these could indeed be great rental parcels, but not necessarily when lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick and his merry band of thieves want more and better space for their personal offices. As much as I don't like the idea of housing the Aspen Police Department at the AAM building, for example, it sure beats a $20 million taxpayer-funded office development for our bureaucrats on the Zupancis property (or elsewhere)!
  • Determine how to measure economic sustainability. Ya think?! This one should be #1 on the list. The term gets kicked around time and time again, but without metrics, the city regularly funds nonsensical programs and projects (that have no measurable goals) simply because the money is there. Each and every payout by the city (including government employee salaries) should have an economic impact goal and published result!
  • Create a master plan for Wagner Park, the malls, Rubey Park and Durant Avenue in order to improve the downtown core. The current rush to redevelop the Rubey Park bus station has firmly placed the cart before the horse. It is telling that this goal made the list; someone on council sees the forest for the trees and is signaling that this specific undertaking ought to be part of a larger downtown solution. Let's hope, because as much as we may need an updated bus depot to accommodate our current and future needs, we have other problems (such as parking and pollution) that could and should be addressed as the same time.
  • Determine the city's role in health and human services funding. There is already a property tax (passed in 2011) in Pitkin County that raises $1.9M annually to supplement the County's $2M state-mandated HHS funding.  The existence of this new tax creates a controversial and politically charged situation over the future of the current $380K in annual funding by the city to 23 select HHS nonprofits. The key questions: Is HHS funding solely a County function, or does the city have additional funding responsibility?  If it is a shared responsibility, are Aspen residents being "double-taxed" because they are paying in both the city and county? It is vitally important that city's HHS funding guidelines be established, defined and, most importantly, followed!
  • Propose policy changes for the subsidized housing program that specifically addresses the issue of chronically underfunded capital reserve accounts. Well this is certainly a start. And the signal is strong, acknowledging that the subsidized housing is indeed a public asset. APCHA and the housing program were started with good intentions 30 years ago, but in their current state, epitomize the law of unintended consequences. Forcing compliance with capital reserve contributions is step one toward getting this monster back in its cage. But we have a long way to go.
  • "Help new business start-ups." Good grief. So now the city wants to get into the subsidized business business. Really? Yes, it is TOUGH (and expensive) to start and to operate a business in Aspen. And only the strong survive. But just because we publicly subsidize 2800 housing units DOES NOT mean we must additionally subsidize businesses that would otherwise fail. It's touchy-feely for sure, but just not good public policy.

NEW STREAMLINED DEVELOPMENT APPROVAL PROCESS LOOKS LIKELY

In another positive move, council stands ready to make notable changes to its existing land use codes, allowing applicants to lock in the mass, scale and land use of a building at the beginning of the process. This is a HUGE departure from the status quo that has those very details in limbo right up until final review - a lengthy, not to mention costly, wait for applicants while they await approval decisions. And no, this does not give an instantaneous approval to all development applications. It simply moves the controversial aspects forward in the process to the conceptual review phase. As councilman Art Daily remarked, this has been "a long time coming."

APCHA TO RAISE THE RETIREMENT AGE?

The Red Ant was astonished to learn that APCHA is seriously considering raising the retirement age for subsidized housing dwellers. This is yet another policy discussion to be commended! As it stands today, residents 65 and older can retire in their APCHA units as long as they have worked full-time for at least four years in Pitkin County. City-generated reports have the numbers of retirees who live and will live in housing publicly subsidized for workers skyrocketing in coming years. In an effort (a very positive one) to keep actual workers in the units for a little while longer, APCHA is looking to tie its retirement age to the age when someone receives full benefits as determined by the US Social Security Administration, meaning the age above 65 on a sliding scale for anyone born after 1942. According to APCHA's proposal to the county commissioners, someone born in 1955 reaches full social security benefits at 66 years and 2 months, while people born in 1967 hit full benefits at 67. And if the feds raise the retirement age in the future, APCHA's retirement age would change in accordance. All in all, this is a great first step in addressing the changing needs and dynamics of our subsidized housing program.

But while there are solid positive developments afoot, some of the same BS, like kudzu, continues to proliferate.

THE CANARIES IN ASPEN'S COAL MINE

Did you know that the city has a department specifically called the "environmental health and sustainability department" with a $188,000 annual budget? Originally created to reduce the Aspen community's carbon footprint, the department is now unequivocally determined that it must prepare Aspen (and the region!) for the inevitability of impending climate change. Undertaking what they call "resiliency planning" and "preparedness planning" on your dime, they'll be focusing on further reducing local ground transportation greenhouse gas output (yes, they hate cars) and electricity consumption (they especially hate A/C and snowmelt systems). How they plan to do this is anyone's guess, but I think it's safe to assume that it will cost you money. The best news from this office, however, is that, according to director Ashley Perl, "Local geothermal is not part of the mix, based on what we've found. (Read: Nothing) And we're not including Castle Creek (hydro) in our estimates of how we get to our goal." As they darned well shouldn't!!

BURLINGAME 2 GOING SOLAR

As the ugly beast raises its head with 48 new units coming online in December and January (and another 34 in 2014 and 79 in 2015), the city will be installing solar-powered technology at $6250/unit in each of the subsidized dwellings at Burlingame 2. The city's $150,000 expenditure (matched by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, another city bucket of cash) will come from the housing development fund. This fancy investment will provide solar hot water preheat systems that the city says will offset all energy use by one third and reduce CO2 emissions by about 25 metric tons a year - the equivalent of taking five cars off the road annually! Anything to get those cars off the road, right?!? Besides, the city's subsidized housing manager Chris Everson told council, "It's the right thing to do." Really? Is that the very best we can do with $300,000?

RFTA BUSES ALONG DURANT AVENUE - WHERE ARE THE CANARIES NOW?

The Red Ant has been following the city's motions to re-vamp the 1967-era RFTA bus station at Rubey Park for some time. Shockingly, despite council's stated goal of a master plan for Wagner Park, the malls, Rubey Park and Durant Avenue, citizens were recently presented with a major teardown project involving the construction of as many as three new buildings on the current bus terminal site. As recently as May, the idea had been to remodel the current interior and improve bus parking, but with access to federal grants from CDOT and the federal highway administration (read: free money), our local bureaucrats have managed to cobble together $4.2million for the project. And yes, $1.2 million of that comes from local governments and agencies so it's not entirely free.

Voila! The three final designs under consideration call for 18, 23 or 28 buses parked along Durant Avenue! Where was the environmental health and sustainability department with its $188,000 annual budget when these astounding proposals were even first contemplated? I could not summarize the dilemma any better than this letter from local Susan O'Neal, as submitted to the Aspen Daily News:

"Citizens, alert. Are you aware the choice given at the Rubey Park open house on Monday was whether we want 18 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue, 23 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue, or 28 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue? What kind of choice is that?

"Are you aware buses are allowed to sit and idle during the summer because RFTA wants buses to be air-conditioned when passengers board? Can you fathom how trashy Wagner Park, Ajax and the center of Aspen will look when there are even 18 buses parked on both sides of the street along Wagner, idling?

"I cannot think of any worse air pollution, noise pollution or visual pollution than to park all these buses on Durant Avenue, obstructing our view of the mountains. What are they thinking? And I wonder how much the city paid for someone to come up with this outrageous plan to park all these buses in the center of town? These buses need to be parked at Buttermilk or the airport, not in the center of town, causing horrific air, noise and visual pollution.

"Please speak up to defeat this trashy proposal. We do not want 18, 23 or 18 buses parked in the center of town along Wagner Park. Someone is out of their mind."

Incidentally, Susan, the city spent $177,500 on consultants who were asked to study existing conditions, perform a needs assessment and come up with schematic designs to make the most of the existing site. Seems that infusion of "free money" (read: no one will be monitoring its use or cost/benefit) has truly made a mountain out of this molehill.

WAGNER PARKING: AN OLD IDEA WORTH RECONSIDERING

Now before you come unglued (as many letter writers to the paper have done over the past several weeks), The Red Ant reminds you that no one, nowhere, wants to build a parking garage ON Wagner Park. It is, after all, a beautiful open space in Aspen's downtown core. BUT, think for just a moment about a parking garage UNDERNEATH the park. Oh yes, it would be a mess to build, and the park would become a giant hole in the process, but short term pain for long term gain makes it at least worthy of some serious consideration. And we should consider it now, before we throw millions at building a major transportation depot where the Rubey Park bus station now stands, and before we throw many more millions at fixing the leaking and poorly-located Rio Grande Garage that is everyone's parking spot of last resort.

By political design, we continue to lose parking spaces in the downtown core. And that's just flat out stupid. Cars are NOT going to go away. The drivers of them just might, however. We are collectively in the hospitality business, and it's none too hospitable to tell our guests to ride a bike to dinner. Know your clientele. People need to conveniently and affordably park their cars in order to enjoy the Aspen Idea and all its trappings that we work so hard to provide. We (attempt to) "bury" the cars over by the court house; why wouldn't we consider doing so downtown? At the same time, we could "bury" the buses too. It would certainly be a vast improvement for Durant Street!

This is a time-worn idea whose time for consideration has come again.

CAN'T MAKE IT UP

On day #2 of the US Pro Challenge bike race, law enforcement and race officials were alerted to a suspicious package on Castle Creek Bridge. Out of an abundance of caution (think: Boston), race officials closed the bridge to all traffic and cleared all the spectators from this primo viewing location (from this spot, one could watch the racers descend then climb back up Power Point Road below). The Red Ant has it on good authority that the backpack (as the suspicious package turned out to be) belonged to none other than our former mayor the racer chaser, Mick.

Saturday
Oct192013

ISSUE # 97: ByzANTine Conundrums

"The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it."  

                              -- Moliere

THE NEW LINE-UP

Mayor:        Steve Skadron (2-year term)

                   Steve.skadron@cityofaspen.com

Council:       Adam Frisch (2 years remaining on his 4-year term)

                   Adam.frisch@cityofaspen.com

Council:       Ann Mullins (4-year term)

                   Ann.mullins@cityofaspen.com

Council:       Art Daily (4-year term)

                   Art.daily@cityofaspen.com

Council:       Dwayne Romero (2-year remainder of Skadron's term)

                   Dwayne.romero@cityofaspen.com

 

These are YOUR elected officials. Communicate with them!

Well, we're finally off to the races! With the bold and promising leadership step of switching his vote and casting a ballot for Dwayne Romero in the final vote for the 4th council member, new mayor Steve Skadron made certain that HIS council would be out from under Mick's shadow. When council was deadlocked 2-2 and facing a roll of the dice to determine the council appointee to fill Skadron's vacated council seat for the remaining 2 years of the term, only Howie Mallory and Dwayne remained in contention. Mallory, a retired banker, chair of the Open Space board and a long-time Mick supporter, was the odds-on favorite since submitting his application. But in the end, I believe it was Romero's even-handed reputation and prior willingness to run for elected office that won the day. (That's not to mention widespread cries for diversity on council that many thought only Dwayne could bring.) Skadron also wisely recognized that a roll of the dice for this critical role would likely make Aspen a laughingstock - lesser council moves in the past have garnered national media attention, and not the good kind.

I am optimistic. I like what I've seen from newly seated mayor Steve Skadron so far. He runs a collegial and efficient meeting - the first few were just 90 minutes long. And there is a palpable new and welcoming tenor in council chambers. The appointment process for his vacated seat was as transparent as he promised it would be. And, in stark contrast to Mick, Steve showed up at the opening of this year's Music Festival in coat and tie, with a welcoming and gracious message. (Recall how Mick rolled in last year, wearing grungy bike clothes, and pontificated about smoking pot.) Yes, optics count. Thank you, Steve, for honoring our treasured institution, our community and our guests. You're off to a great start.

The Red Ant is not alone. Local hater and Aspen Daily News columnist Doug Allen is particularly incensed at Steve's dramatic departure from the ways of Mick. His most recent column (read it HERE) has him spitting nails at all to be viewed so favorably.

Aspen faces many difficult issues and potentially divisive challenges ahead. The honeymoon won't last forever, but I like the start. It's an opportunity to re-group and re-prioritize. And let's face it, we're all in this together. Let's give it our best shot.

THE JIM TRUE/FALSE LAW FIRM

Imagine this -- the city's in-house legal department has quite the full plate. Mick's lawsuit-happy tenure leaves the new council with many legal entanglements (most are abuses of litigation for political and personal purposes) that can hopefully be resolved and/or settled out of court in a timely manner. As of June 10, 2013, city attorney Jim True/False, assistant city attorney Debbie Quinn and their paralegal are addressing 11 cases of docketed litigation. That's quite a serious workload. One estimate has the legal costs of all this litigation at over $1.5M of your tax dollars annually. Here are the cases: 

1. Saving Our Streams, et al v. City of Aspen, 2011CW130: lawsuit filed by residents along Castle Creek, claiming the city abandoned its water rights for a hydro plant. Trial is set to commence 10/31/13.

 

2. Verner, et al v. City of Aspen, et al, 11CV178: lawsuit filed by neighbors of the former Boomerang Lodge claims council abused its discretion and exceeded its jurisdiction by up-zoning the property for 46 subsidized housing units with 33 underground parking places as well as 12 head-in parking spaces on 4th St. In June, district court judge Gail Nichols ruled in favor of the city. It is unknown whether or not there will be an appeal. 

3. Vagneur, et al v. City of Aspen, et al, 07CV175: lawsuit brought by champions of the 4-lane "straight shot" across the Marolt Open Space who sought to get their petition on the ballot in hopes of raising property taxes by 1.7 mils to fund the project. The case was originally dismissed in favor of the city, and the appeals court later upheld the district court's opinion by ruling that the issue was an administrative vs. legislative matter and therefore could not be decided by voters. The Supreme Court has ruled in the city's favor on all issues, but the case remains open until the court's formal remand is received.

 

4. Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) v. Maureen Mary Kinney, et al, and Intervener Defendant, Cross Plaintiff and Third Party Plaintiff: Robert Nix v. City of Aspen, 07CV152: this tangled lawsuit pertains to a deed restriction that involved a lot line adjustment and property exchange, as well as a historic development approval. Mr Nix seeks to undo several of the approvals that were granted to Ms Kinney and Mr Hicks as well as clarify the rights of various parties regarding the property exchange. The matter is set for trial 5/12/14.

 

5. Meyerstein Trust v. City of Aspen, et al, 2013CA000330 (08CV56): lawsuit challenges whether Aspen's subsidized housing program violates a state ban on rent control in privately owned buildings. The complicated lawsuit began in 2008 and is now at the Supreme Court because the appeals court abstained from issuing a finding on the legality of the deed restrictions in question.

 

6. Aspenitall, LLC v. City of Aspen, 09CV74: lawsuit claims the city had no established process and inconsistent justification(s) for removing 2 on-street parking places from in front of a private Mill Street property. The 4/9/12 order from the court found in favor of the city on all issues, however the plaintiff has filed a notice of appeal.

 

7. Marks v. Koch, 09CV294: lawsuit requested access to 2009 ballot images. The case was originally dismissed but later unanimously reversed in an appellate ruling in favor of Marks that also awarded legal fees. The city is challenging its payment of fees to Marks despite the court's ruling because they believe that their "win" at the district court level precludes them from paying fees for this portion of the suit. Amounts currently are approaching $300K.

 

8. Koch v. Marks and Branscomb, 2012CA2446 (11CV299), suit against Marilyn Marks and Harvie Branscomb for requesting to see 2011 ballots, given the outcome of Marks v. Koch. City claims that until this new legislation, state law prohibited the examination of cast ballots.

 

9. Mill Street Aspen, LLC and Scott DeGraff v. City of Aspen, 10CV318: lawsuit stems from a 2010 liquor license denial and finding that DeGraff did not meet the city's "good moral character" standard because of a 2000 civil case in Illinois. Suit asks that the city set aside the license denial as well as the personal finding, claiming that only a criminal record or violations of the liquor code can be judged in liquor license proceedings. Awaiting determination of the court. 

10.  Colorado Union of Taxpayers v. City of Aspen, 12CV224: lawsuit claims the city is in violation of TABOR (taxpayer's bill of rights) because the city's "fee" for paper grocery bags is actually a tax, and taxes must be approved by the electorate, not council. Because this case involves a constitutional challenge, the Attorney General's office is additionally involved.

 

11. Burlingame Ranch 1 Condominium Association, Inc. v. Certainteed Corporation, City of Aspen, et al, 12CV104: lawsuit names the city, among others, including the contractor and siding manufacturer for construction defects in the 5-year-old subsidized housing project. Settlement talks have occurred, however no final resolution has been reached.

 

Recently added to this list is City of Aspen vs JW Ventures: lawsuit seeks to force the property owners to comply with a building permit that was issued for the project that allows subsidized housing residents to use a front staircase and elevator despite the project's plat map - approved by city planners - showing the front entrance hallway as a "limited common element" solely for the free market owners' use.

 

Note to new council: work toward solutions. Many of these cases can be cleared up in short order. It won't necessarily be pretty for the city in all cases, but you have no obligation to continue fighting Mick's personal vendettas with public money. It is not in the public's best interest for the city to engage in lawsuits with citizens as a matter of practice; only when absolutely necessary.  

And The Red Ant knows of litigation that is likely to be filed against the city in coming months.  I'll be writing about it. Hopefully the new council will take the necessary steps to avoid this particular issue....

 

SUBSIDIZED HOUSING: WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST

I recently wrote about "Caribbean Rotations" in subsidized housing (see Issue # 94) where retirees will soon be allowed to rent out their subsidized housing units to qualified employees while away from Aspen for up to 6 months at a time. I got great feedback from readers on the stupidity of this idea.

 

One reader, however, took great umbrage at my critique of the new sanctioned subsidized housing-abuse program. Her perspective is illustrative of how far we have gotten off the path of reality when dealing with the challenges of reasoning with those in subsidized housing. The level of entitlement is absurd. She wrote: "When it comes to seniors being in employee housing, I must say many of us have 'paid our dues.' Most of us have fixed up our homes with all kinds of amenities we don't get credit for, and we actually lose money when we sell. One mayoral candidate (who lost) had a good idea: pay us what it would cost to build a new unit. That may have been a good way to get rid of us, though some would still like to stay. I like the idea of being able to rent for 6 months, but how does one choose someone who would take care of our furnishings and personal items? The housing office allows $50 over and above the amount they set as accepted rental rates. For me, that is far below what my expenses are. So, this creates a big dilemma. Who can afford to have someone come and take everything out of the unit, paying for storage and help? I have no idea what the answer is, as I personally dislike the long winter months more and more." 

The Red Ant is pretty clear on what the answer is. It begins with said paying of dues. What dues? Folks in subsidized housing have not paid dues, literally or figuratively. In the literal sense, most homeowner associations in APCHA's portfolio are notoriously negligent in the collection of dues from their residents. In the figurative sense, what dues? With subsidized housing, those who paid for the construction of said housing paid the "dues" in the form of the real estate transfer tax (RETT). Those who live there reap the benefits without paying market costs. Regardless of how long one lives in subsidized housing, the benefits only accrue. There is no "payment of dues" whatsoever. The best way to think about subsidized housing is as a college scholarship. It's earned (based on qualified employment in Aspen vs. grades), but it is not guaranteed forever (must comply with APCHA requirements vs. keep grades up/stay enrolled). In Aspen, there is the added bonus of retiring in a unit built for employees - kinda like graduating and still getting to live in the dorms.  

What is lost on this population is that, in the 'real world,' when someone wants to live in a warmer climate, they figure out how to do it: split time (if they rent out their place, or if they can afford to, leave it empty) or they move. In our subsidized housing program, designed for employees but increasingly occupied by retirees, leaving the units empty is thankfully not allowed. It's not a personal thing. If retired residents of subsidized housing want to fly south, they too should have to make some hard choices. Why should they be any different? And they certainly shouldn't have an easier decision matrix! The rental option is not ideal, but it does provide an option that was not previously available.

 

Furthermore, I absolutely do not believe that those in housing should have the same (potential) financial upsides as those in the free market. No way. Those in free market housing have far greater investment risk (from market forces), and with great risk comes the potential for great reward. No risk (for those in housing) should reap that same no reward. It's basic economics. Again, it's not personal. Subsidized housing has enabled a great part of our community to live in Aspen when they otherwise couldn't because of the cost, but to assume/demand a guaranteed financial upside on par with the free market is astonishing. The upside for those in housing is the ability to live, subsidized, in the most expensive town in America.

 

CHAIRMAN MAO'S DINER: "THE PEOPLE'S EATS" DELAYED

As part of a settlement with the city that yielded permission to build a 4527 sf condo on the building's 3rd and 4th floors, the developers of the Cooper Street Pier building agreed to provide for an affordable "people's" restaurant in the 1800 sf basement space. (See Issue #4 from way back in 2008.) The benefits/requirements for the lucky tenant are communistic:

  • Rent must be less than 75% of the free market rate for a similar space
  • Rent cannot exceed $50/sf in the first year
  • Menu items must be within the bottom 1/3 of Aspen restaurant prices 

Imagine - the developers are having a difficult time finding a tenant! But now it's the city of Aspen to the rescue. The city, in its new foray into the restaurant business, will begin soliciting qualified tenants who will initially have to invest in a "full tenant finish" for the otherwise empty space. This costly endeavor, coupled with the capped food sales prices, will likely be none too popular for aspiring restaurateurs who actually want to make money. But the city is already asking prospective tenants what kind of discount (read: public subsidy) they will need to offset the cost of this build-out. It simply never ends.

 

THE BIKE SHARE B.S. RIDES ON

Thanks for the overwhelming responses to last issue's (Issue #96) expose on We-Cycle, the highly controversial bike sharing program. Among readers of The Red Ant, We-Cycle is widely perceived to be a political folly. And the kiosks? Aspen's version of urban blight.

 

The program's organizers have gone on record with their belief that 100 trips a day is a resounding success, so The Red Ant ran some numbers. Here are some interesting facts:

 

If We-Cycle averages 100 trips a day at $2 per trip, the program will generate a mere $40K in annual operating income ($2 x 100 trips x 200 days per year of operation - remember, the bikes are stored during the winter months), or less than one-fifth of what they need to cover their $261K projected annual operating expenses. Never mind covering the cost of capital. Assuming a cost of capital of 2.4% (10-year treasury), their annual cost of capital is $74K ($650K at 2.4% for 10 years) on a 10-year depreciation schedule which is probably too long. It should probably be 5-7 years. And never mind 200 days is nearly 7 months! We live in ASPEN. May - November (inclusive) is a wee bit optimistic!

I cannot see any way the program will ever make environmental or financial sense. To cover operating and capital costs in total, We-Cycle would have to average 800 trips per day at $2 per trip (that's right, 800 trips EVERY DAY FOR 200 STRAIGHT DAYS). If we forgive the cost of capital completely, the program would still have to average 650 trips per day for 200 days of annual service to cover its operating budget with fees alone in order to avoid needing an operating subsidy. Can you say "money pit?"

 

The program's creators are actually brilliant. They have positioned We-Cycle as a "transit" program, so transit financial standards can be applied to measure its success. Transit is notorious for requiring operating and capital subsidies. This is a textbook publicly-funded program, especially with the added perception of an "environmental benefit." And we all know that spending untold thousands of public monies in the name of saving the environment is what we should all be doing, right?

 

The Red Ant has learned from folks in the transit world in Denver that governments regularly treat CMAQ grants like "found money" because there is no real accountability for how these federal dollars are spent. There is no oversight or requirement to produce beneficial outcomes from its use; money just ends up being used to achieve political ends rather than solving real problems. No wonder Aspen was so keen to do it!

 

CAN'T MAKE IT UP: BIKES WON'T STOP

Whether you own, rent or use a We-Cycle, soon you won't have to stop at stop signs when biking in the city of Aspen. Heralded as a "safety measure" and an incentive for more people to ride bikes, Aspen Police and city staff recently convinced council (Skadron, Mullins and Frisch) that Idaho's "stop-as-yield" approach is actually safer. What? Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn explained that "cyclists are actually at greater risk when they stop at stop signs because of a few factors: one of them being that there is always an unknown element for motorists in the area when a bicyclist comes to a stop sign. Is that bike going to stop or not?" Really?? Apparently some cyclists have difficulty dealing with the inertia when they come to a hard stop. Puh-lease. The Red Ant doesn't like it. The word "splat" comes to mind. Time will tell. Be careful out there.

ONE MORE THING

HERE's another hilarious installment from Aspen Times columnist Glenn Beaton: Fly the Affordable Skies.  Enjoy.