Archived Ants

ISSUE #139: ErrANT Expenditures  2/8/18

"Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."
                          -- P.J. O'Rourke

SMAASH!!!  Hear that?  Sounds a lot like egg hitting the faces of our five esteemed council members.  But more likely, it's the sound of these same smug elected representatives being played like a fiddle.
Despite the efforts of numerous citizens to put the kibosh on the ill-conceived subsidized housing project at 488 Castle Creek Road late last year (See Issue #138), council elected to ignore the facts and dire warnings about the inappropriate location, the density, and especially the presented finances, and approved the project, reducing it to 24 units versus the originally proposed 28. 
With said approval, Aspen Housing Partners (AHP), the developer (in a public-private partnership with the city), was off to the races in its development of not only 24 units at 488 Castle Creek Road, but two other subsidized housing complexes, at 517 Park Circle (11 units) and 802 West Main Street (10 units) as one multi-property project. According to the developer agreement between AHP and the city, money has likely already changed hands, with AHP receiving the upfront 20% of its $2.7 million (12%) developer fee.  (If it hasn't, it will soon.)
AHP was selected as the developer in late 2016 (beating out numerous local developers), ostensibly as it came in as the low cost provider with promises of obtaining tax credits to lower the city's out-of-pocket costs.  The pitch was enticing.  The city would "off load" the entirety of building, owning and operating the three subsidized housing rental projects for 15 years, at which point the city would have the first right of refusal to purchase the projects back for "whatever debt is on the property and whatever taxes have incurred to the property."  In the meantime, the lease on the land will be $10 per year.  Yep, $10.  The deal was a stinker from the get-go, and today, merely weeks later, the chickens are already coming home to roost.
AHP's federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) proposal of optimistically 9% and otherwise 4% was dangled before council as much to reduce costs as to expedite approvals.  (Did AHP know that city staff and the lemmings on council are notorious for negligible due diligence - or were they just lucky?)  At the direction of Barwick and city staff (because that's how it works with this council), Mayor Skadron obediently ran the "hurry up" and rushed the approvals right along, never once asking about per unit costs and the resulting public subsidies, nor listening to anyone outside of city hall who knows far more than all five of them combined about development.  Council, not knowing what they were doing or how to evaluate the deal, continued to focus on the most optimistic financial assumptions (9% tax credits) for political purposes instead of demanding a realistic estimate of the project's ultimate cost.  Nor did they think about a contingency plan if the 9% tax credits did not materialize.  Why they didn't consider any of this BEFORE signing the development agreement last July or providing development approvals in late 2017 only further illustrates how ill-prepared they are to make this type of financial obligation on behalf of the public.
Alas, what AHP (complicit with city staff) didn't tell council, other than their grandiose promises of doing all the work to secure tax credits for all three projects and thus earning their 12% development fee, was that a 9% tax credit for such projects was never anything more than a red herring.  
For some unknown reason, it wasn't until after the three complexes were granted development approvals that city staff and AHP revealed to council that they had met with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA), the administrators of the LIHTC program, earlier in the fall. When they did meet with CHFA, take a guess what they learned?  You got it - the AHP projects would have "very little chance" of ever receiving a 9% tax credit (yet they waited to tell council until after the development approvals were granted).  Why?  It's simple, and those of us who railed specifically against 488 Castle Creek knew it all along because we did the simple due diligence and looked it up.  Turns out that in recent years, just 30% of applications received the 9% tax credit, and these projects had rental units specifically set aside for the 30% AMI income level (equivalent to the lowest half of the lowest APCHA housing category) AND provided accommodation specifically for the homeless, disabled, seniors and veterans. Oops.  Furthermore, given Aspen's well-known ability to pay its own way, it would be highly unlikely that Aspen would ever receive a LIHTC award at this level.  Oh yeah, and one more thing, the 9% tax credits have NEVER been granted to a multi-property application.  (Surely AHP knew this going in; they're the experts in getting these tax credits, right?)  But that's not all, here comes the bait and switch.  
Staff, with its tail between its legs, and in the heavily-conflicted role of being both partner in the development and "boss/advisor" to city council, had to recently inform them of this little snafu.  But don't worry, they say, a 4% tax credit is a better fit for the AHP projects anyway.  Chances are indeed better (there was ZERO chance of 9%) because these credits have been awarded to similar projects to what AHP is proposing, but still, historically only "some" of the applications for 4% credits have been approved.  It all depends on who else is applying in a given year.  In other words, the 4% tax credits are FAR from a sure thing.  In fact there are two 4% scenarios: federal and state 4% credits or just federal 4% credits, and the competition will be robust.
But that's not the only "new" wrinkle.  With the better of the 4% tax credit scenarios (federal + state credits) comes some other restrictions, such as the initial compliance period of 15 years PLUS a required extended use period of an additional 15 years.  Yep, suddenly it's now 30 years before the city will be able to buy back the complexes and sell or rent them through APCHA.  (You didn't really think the city was building much-needed rental units for our transient workforce, did you?)  Staff's recommendation to get around this inconvenience?  Just apply for the 4% tax credits at 488 Castle Creek Road.  The 21 units at the other two locations will now be built and managed as rentals by AHP for 15 years, totally unencumbered by the tax credit program mandates.  Staff proudly told council that this latest change "simplifies management" and, despite the obvious drawback of "segregating people based on income more so than originally intended," these impacts are less significant "than the downstream flexibility gained."  
The consequence of a decreased tax credit?  It's not like council asked or staff was terribly forthright, but of course the city will now financially make up the difference.  The quick switch from 9% credits to 4% means that the city's financial contribution to the project development budget goes up at least $4.7 million and could go up $5.7 million, depending on which 4% credit (state and federal, or just federal) is awarded.  It will obviously go up even further if no tax credit is awarded.

Depending on which city or developer document you use (as you can imagine, there are several), the numbers are different. Other than an out-of-date pro-forma included as an exhibit in the council-approved developer agreement from July 2017, one is hard pressed to find a comprehensive pro-forma that shows all sources of income and expenses on a single page.  Without a summary that compares current financials to the originally approved options, it's very difficult to understand what changed and why.
Here is The Red Ant's best effort at compiling a comprehensive snapshot of the AHP project financials for your information, in order to demonstrate how the city subsidy changes now that the 9% tax credit option for the entire project is out of the question. Using the council-approved development agreement, exhibit D (HERE) as a baseline:
  • Total development cost:                             $25.728 million
  • The 9% tax credit equity:                           $11.498 million
  • City of Aspen:                                          $9.927 million
  • Private Mortgage:                                    $4.302 million
Based on my best understanding of the July 2017 pro-forma, the $3 million in estimated remaining debt that will need to be paid off by the city in 15 years was included in these totals.  
  • Total City Contribution:   $9.9 million, or $220k per unit in development costs

But now that 9% is out of the question:

Since approval of the development agreement, city council has reduced the number of units at 488 Castle Creek from 28 to 24, reducing the total number of units at all three parcels from 49 to 45. So the estimated total development cost has actually declined to $24.59 million, according to an AHP spreadsheet dated December 10, 2017 (HERE). These changes in the total number of units and the number of tax credit units being applied for make it impossible to compare the current proposal to the original agreement without a comprehensive summary pro-forma in the same format as the one in the agreement. In most places, the decision makers would demand such information, but not the Aspen city council.
Extrapolating from a table provided in a city staff memo dated January 5, 2018, (since no other option exists to derive a comparison to the original agreement), the estimated tax credit contribution to the project in the best case scenario where the city receives both federal and state 4% tax credits, decreases to $8.4 million. These changes increase the city's contribution from the originally estimated $9.9 million to $14.59 million, a $4.69 million increase ($4.3 million for the lost tax credits and an additional $390K in increased project costs).  These changes drive the city's per-unit subsidy up 60.4%, from $202,040 for 49 units to $324,222 for 45 units, and the project is not even out of the planning stages yet.

And consider, if the city only receives the 4% federal credits and is not awarded the 4% state credits, the city's subsidy increases another $1 million, according to the same memo. This outcome increases the city's development subsidy from $14.59 million to $15.59 million, and the per-unit subsidy goes up to $346,444 for 45 units, 71.4% higher than the 9% scenario in July's development agreement.

Notably, none of these numbers include the land costs for each parcel.  According to the Pitkin County Assessor, land costs (all parcels were purchased eleven years ago by the city during Mick Ireland and Steve Barwick's land-banking spree) add another $12.332 million (517 Park Circle - $3.242 million, 802 West Main - $3.69 million, and 488 Castle Creek - $5.4 million).  And don't forget, the city is ADDITIONALLY on the hook for the cost of construction over-runs when these inevitably occur.

What does this mean in terms of per-unit subsidy?  $12.332 million for the land, plus as much as $15.59 million in city subsidies for development cost totals, divided by 45 units is $620,489/unit in city subsidies. (By comparison, the controversial per-unit subsidy paid by the city to develop the for-sale units at Burlingame Ranch back in 2007 was around $330,000.) And of note, in 2017, the Assessor valued the three parcels at $6,589,000 (517 Park Circle at $2.5 million, 802 West Main at $2.671 million, and 488 Castle Creek at a cool $1.418 million), a mere 53% of the $12.332 million the city paid A DECADE AGO!!  Nice use of taxpayer dollars, Steve and Mick.
A recent email from AHP to city council places the total per-unit cost at $977,211.  If accurate, this puts the total cost for all 45 units on the three parcels, including land, at $43,974,445.  
In the end, it's anyone's guess what the actual costs will end up being. City staff and the developer have created a smokescreen of ever-changing numbers, presented in varying formats and employing multiple assumptions. As a result, it is nearly impossible to nail down exactly what they are estimating the final costs and subsidies to be for comparison and accountability purposes. 
In any case, it's a far cry from the developer's pitch to council in August 2016, "We are taking the city off the hook for everything."  Yeah, right.  Did AHP ever even intend to apply for the tax credits for all three parcels? Or was this just a ploy to win the contract?  And, with the new financials, how does AHP stack up now against the other developers who bid on the contract?  Remember, the total project cost is estimated to be $24.59 million.  AHP's cut of that total, according to its summary of development costs dated December 10, 2017, is $2,709,522, or 12%.

According to the development agreement, despite the enormous change in tax credit application plans and a greatly diminished scope of work, AHP apparently still gets its entire 12% development fee.  Not only have they contracted with Shaw Construction to physically build the complexes, there is no longer the substantial work of navigating CHFA's cumbersome 9% federal tax credit application, and the application for 4% credits is now just for one site, not all three.  Furthermore, AHP, using an outside management company, now only has to operate one of the three complexes, 488 Castle Creek, as a tax credit compliant project, significantly reducing its operating costs and compliance risk until the city buys it back.
Yes, the development agreement contemplated the possibility that AHP could only be awarded the 4% credits, resulting in a higher city subsidy.  But my question is, why did council not demand that the developer fee be tied to the construction cost of the units for which tax credits are actually awarded, perhaps even linked to the specific level of credit? The 4% federal credit application for the 24 units at 488 Castle Creek is now a far simpler and less costly "fill in the blanks" process. And it comes with a minimum $4.7-$5.7 million increase in the city's development cost.  The Red Ant has additionally been told that operating a tax credit compliant property is no trivial matter, so doing so for just one complex versus three is another notable reduction in the developer's risk in comparison to their original proposal.
Why on earth should AHP continue to get the same $2.7 million developer fee under these new circumstances? 
We all know that city staff considers price to be irrelevant, especially when it comes to subsidized housing.  But so does council, obviously.  They are so unbelievably naïve that they have been manipulated by both sides of the AHP partnership.  By presenting an implausible 9% tax credit scenario, AHP led our oblivious council down the tax credit primrose path. City staff, with its "subsidized housing at any cost" mentality and financial obfuscation designed to confuse council and thwart oversight, selectively spoon-fed incremental information and continues to do so to this day.
The craziest thing is that when notified (yes, by the public) that they had been embarrassingly played, council became indignant.  But not at staff or AHP.  They shot the messenger.  Adam boldly stated that "the city's numbers (on the project) are better" than those from people who build for a living.  No, Adam, they're not.  He still obviously hasn't quite figured out what happened!  And Steve, who grew indignant and emotional when the 488 Castle Creek project was approved for 24 but not 28 units, simply doesn't care.  Like staff, he is fundamentally hell-bent on housing at any cost.  It's hard to tell what Ward thinks.  He pushed for the excessive density at 488 Castle Creek, emphatically stating, "Density is environmentally friendly," regardless of cost, quality of life or context, yet also noted the inappropriate location of the project . With regard to the tax credit bait-and-switch issue, it's likely that his inability to synthesize complex issues prevents him from understanding the dynamics at play.  
Unfortunately, Bert was alone in recognizing the mess.  He did recognize it, but inexplicably still voted to approve it!!  He recently asked his fellow councilmen what they understood the per unit cost to be when they approved the project.  Was it $900K?  $600K?  400K?  200K?  The four declined to answer a question they had clearly never contemplated.  It's too bad that Bert is so out-numbered by incompetence.  This dynamic has unfortunately resulted in his timid and complacent "go along to get along" votes, despite writing to The Red Ant, "I sensed the financials were not supportable when this first came to us and now that the land use is approved, I'm absolutely certain the financials are off the charts."  Yes, Bert, they most certainly are! I am still scratching my head. He later told me, "I didn't want to be the one to blame for their failure,"  meaning that he was afraid that a no vote might somehow send the whole thing back to the drawing board where it belonged, upsetting his pals at the council table. Seriously.  
And Ann, ever hyper-political and condescending, dismissed developer Dick Butera (who has forgotten more about development than this council will ever know), when he told council last week that the per-unit cost had now risen to at least $900K/unit.  She curtly deemed his figures "incorrect," and rudely called Mr. Butera's public comments "inflammatory."  Watch it:

Ann Dissing Dick Butera
Ann Dissing Dick Butera

Well Ann, you should be ashamed of yourself, and you owe Mr. Butera an apology. Your typical "put it in writing" so staff can tell me why they're right and you're wrong is horribly insulting.  (Recall that the APH principal emailed each council member the very next day and stated that the per unit cost is now $977,211.  Oh, and you can bet that number is going nowhere but up!)
Housing at any cost is a dangerous and irresponsible trend.  Our current council has subscribed to it, as did every council before them.  The only difference?  The dollars are bigger each round.  And the new densities reflect the much higher costs.
Consider the case of the complex at 488 Castle Creek, where council was all too happy and eager to re-zone and combine parcels, bought at a premium a decade ago, for an unprecedented 24 housing units on a mere half acre**.  Just think, (realtors and buyers beware) the city and council have just demonstrated that they are willing and able to easily pay above-market prices for ANY parcel, anywhere in town, re-zone it, buck all the rules and build another grotesquely dense subsidized housing project right there.  Yes, even next door to you.
There is an alarming undercurrent afoot toward ever more dense workforce housing development, irrespective of urban growth boundaries and existing zoning.  Apparently, this is the new environmentalism.  No longer is open space valued over development density. It's all about "infill" and building taller, denser buildings in order to reduce the number of commuting workers.  Stack 'em up, right in town. Auden Schendler, SkiCo's in-house greenie, recently penned a manifesto for Outside Magazine (read it HERE) calling for "a new YIMBYism -- Yes In My Back Yard" that prioritizes (the workforce) community over self interest (those who dare to care about their private property values).  Apparently Auden, who is also a Basalt councilman, has discovered that trees don't vote.  Now he's pandering to the working men and women who aspire to the mountain life, all but promising that if they come, we will build it (really dense housing, right in town, just for them).
** When purchased in 2007, the community was told that 488 Castle Creek would have 12-15 units.  It is now 24, comprised of ten 2-bedroom units and 14 1-bedrooms.  Single occupancy puts 34 people on-site.  But these are rentals, so the units will be packed to capacity. Double occupancy then provides accommodation for 68 souls. (That's with no one on the couch!) The building envelope on the site is just ½ acre.  On top of that (no pun intended), there will be just 34 parking places on the narrow driveway, which enters off a bend on Castle Creek Road, necessitating that any and all garbage, delivery and moving trucks either back in or out.  This is gonna be fun to watch.  But not really.  (I just hope no one gets killed.)  Because of this impending disaster and the stacked-like-cordwood living conditions to come, The Red Ant proposes we name the complex SMAASH, short for Steve-Myrin-Ann-Adam-Skadron-Hauenstein (mayor Steve gets both his names included as a prize for his tears at the approval meeting after losing 4 units on the top floor).  And for that egg on all of their faces. Congratulations, guys! 


ISSUE #138: ANT ALERT - A Housing Boondoggle  10/23/2017

"But when you talk about destruction, 

Don't you know you can count me out..."
                    -- The Beatles, "Revolution"


With its roots in a 2007 land acquisition (think: city manager Steve Barwick and his infamous "land-banking" prowess), plans for a 28-unit multi-family subsidized housing project at 488 Castle Creek Road, adjacent to the Marolt Open Space, have reared their ugly head.  It was only a matter of time, and here we are, a decade later, facing an abomination at the entrance to Aspen.
Located inside the western edge of the city of Aspen boundary, on the NE side of Castle Creek Road, one half mile from the roundabout, sits a triangle-shaped .82 acre vacant site with a single curb-cut.  The site is currently zoned R-15A for moderate density, and technically exists today as two parcels (11,255 sf and 24,640 sf) zoned for a single-family home on each site (the result of a lot split during the 2006 ownership period). It is situated across Castle Creek Road from the Aspen Valley Hospital campus, as well as the Castle Ridge, Mountain Oaks, Water Place and Twin Ridge subsidized housing projects, and adjacent to the Marolt Open Space and Marolt Ranch Seasonal Housing (dorms) property.  Two-thirds of the property is a flat bench, and the remaining one-third is a steep slope (greater than 30 degrees, which precludes development).  The flat bench, comprising approximately one-half acre of usable land, is covered by man-made landfill.
There is an interesting and colorful chain of title to the property:
  • August 1982: Celia Marolt sold the property to JTEM Venture for $216,000
  • October 1987: JTEM Venture sold the property to Hodge Capital Company, which sold the property on the same day to Ted Koutsoubos for $310,000
  • February 1999: Ted Koutsoubos sold the property to Paul Anderson for $900,000
  • March 2006: Paul Anderson sold the property to Steel Partners Ltd for $2,825,000
  • October 2006: Steel Partners Ltd sold the property to WF Castle Creek LLC for $3,400,000
  • June 2007: WF Castle Creek LLC sold the property to the City of Aspen for $5,400,000
Surely you were following those numbers!?!? Note that in 8 short months between October 2006 and June 2007, WF Castle Creek LLC made $2 million (yes -- TWO MILLION DOLLARS IN 8 MONTHS) on their investment by selling to the land-banker with the public's housing fund checkbook, city manager Steve Barwick.  At press time, it is unclear whether an appraisal of the property's value was obtained prior to its acquisition, however, similar city "land-banking" purchases of that era were not subject to such oversight and controls.
Why the $2MM premium, you ask?  It appears this is just what the city did (does?) when it has the money and wants the land.  (Recall the notorious BMC West lumberyard purchase by the city in 2007.)
In partnership with a private developer, the city proposes:
  • 28 (10 x 2-bedroom and 18-1-bedroom) deed-restricted rental units
  • 29 parking spaces, in the front of the complex, just off Castle Creek Road
  • 3-story building above grade with partially buried lower level below
  • L-shaped configuration
  • Maximum height 42'3"
  • Total building floor area 24,183 sf 
At first blush, 28 units totaling just over 22,000 sf may not sound all that offensive.  On its face, it's not. But let me put it in context. Consider that these 28 units will be packed onto roughly one-half acre -- a preposterous density equivalent to over 50 units per acre!  Nowhere has there been an apartment project in Aspen or Pitkin County, whether subsidized or free market, with such density -- yet alone anything that exceeds 15 units per acre! And you'd be hard pressed to find such a development with garden level units anywhere between Aspen and Denver!
Pictures speak louder than words. Check out this preposterous density!! (Is this Aspen or Manhattan??)

(Note: the original proposal was for 24 units, but somehow this recently grew to 28, likely to make the per-unit land cost look a little better.  Alas, it's still $200K per unit!!)
The gross lot area of 35,895 sf less 675 sf (50% of the 20-30 degree slope) less 11,170 (100% of the 30+ degree slope) creates a net lot area of 24,050 sf.  The proposed project's site coverage (footprint) is proposed to be 6966 sf, 19.4% of the gross lot area; 29% of the net.
The subsidized housing complexes in the immediate neighborhood average just 6 units per acre and have an average of 1.4 parking spaces per unit, with maximum heights of approximately 28'.
Furthermore, when a property within the city limits shares a boundary with Pitkin County, the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP) is very specific about residential development.  "Ensure city and county codes are consistent in the vicinity of city/county boundaries to prevent shifts in the character of neighborhoods, and encourage smoother cross-boundary transitions regarding house size and density," and, "control and limit the mass and scale of homes."  (FYI the zoning on the county side of the property is one house per every 10 acres.) 
See how the building is crammed into the NE corner of the parcel? The proposal features mere 5' setbacks from the property line on both the north and east sides.
  • The site, covered by man-made landfill comprised of "overlying silty-sandy gravel with cobbles and boulders" that, according to a city-commissioned geo-technical report, is between 4-5' deep, but "likely varies across the property." (It is widely believed to be at least 10' deep.)  Regardless, it is against city code to build on fill. Furthermore, the report unequivocally recommends that "the man-placed fill should be completely removed from beneath the proposed building area." (This raises another interesting consideration: if a multi-level structure is sited on top of existing fill, and therefore the proposed structure would measure forty to fifty feet in height from the natural grade underneath the fill as required by current code language, is this appropriate? Is this appropriate at the boundary of the Urban Growth Boundary??)
  • 29 parking places for 28 units??? That's one car per unit in a multi-family complex. A complete joke. And just where are those other cars going to park, because there ARE going to be more than 29 cars?!  On Castle Creek Road?? Right. (The city boasts that 29 spaces meets code requirements because it is "not below the minimum or above the maximum" spaces required. That may be true, but it's idiotic just the same.) 
  • Part of the rationale for so few parking spaces (aside from the fact that there isn't space for more) is a list of absolutely foolish "mitigation" elements that somehow are supposed to make it ok:
    • Transit access improvements
    • Trip reduction marketing / incentive program
    • Landscaping to improve the pedestrian experience
    • New bike path
    • Bike parking
  • The access to the site off Castle Creek Road is referred to as a "primitive drive that comes off the northwest of the property" by the engineering firm retained to evaluate the drainage at the property.
  • The proposal notes an architectural nod to the Bauhaus movement in Aspen in the 1940s and 1950s.  Yeah, right. Go over to the Aspen Institute campus and take a look at the very low density Bauhaus architecture there.  This comparison is patently ludicrous. 
For this proposal to become a reality, the city partnership must thankfully jump through some hoops.  They are requesting, among other concessions:
  • Merge the two parcels back into one
  • Re-zoning of the parcel from R-15A (moderate density residential) to AH/PD (affordable housing / public development)
  • Since the project is designed as a Public-Private Partnership between the developer and the city, the city is requesting a 50% fee waiver 
  • Consideration as a Major Public Project which means fewer approval meetings
  • City's portion exempted from the School Land Dedication fee and the Parks and TDM/Air Quality Impact fees
  • 10% increase in allowed site coverage from 6966 sf to 7663 sf (19% to 21% of the gross lot area)
  • 10% reduction in Open Space requirements; code requires 50% of the site area (18,104 sf); asking for 10% less (16,294 sf) 
  • 10% increase in floor area (from 24,183 sf to 26,601 sf)
  • 29 parking spaces to satisfy all parking requirements (code stipulates 38 but with some creative gerry-mandering they can subtract 1 to get to 37, so 29 is 78% of the requirement, above the 60% absolute minimum.)  
  • Waiver of any cash-in-lieu fee requirements that would otherwise be required and the parking deficit that would thereby be created, based on the surprising belief that there is a "strong likelihood" that those non-vehicle alternatives (above) will be embraced and utilized!
In its proposal to P&Z, the city partnership purports that the proposed development at 488 Castle Creek Road will: 
  • Provide a high level of taxpayer value.
  • Complement the fabric of the existing neighborhood.
  • Demonstrate considerations relative to increasing neighborhood density, such as access, parking, transportation and any other impacts.
  • Building height and bulk will be minimized and the structure will be designed to blend in to the open character of the mountain.
  • Minimize the impact on the natural landscape that is the gateway to the Castle Creek Road corridor. 
Seriously?!? This abomination is a complete rebuke of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP), which states "We continue to support an Urban Growth Boundary where density is concentrated in the commercial core and gradually tapers to the boundary and rural area of the County."  Additionally, the AACP policies stipulate that the residential sector "protect the visual quality and character of neighborhoods by minimizing site coverage, mass and scale."  The arrogance of the proposal goes so far as to justify this project and its height, mass and scale by pointing out that neighboring Aspen Valley Hospital (yes, the HOSPITAL) is 4 stories tall (54') and the adjacent AVH housing is 3 stories (33' 6") tall and has no screening or buffering from Castle Creek Road, as if that is going to make us like it more!
The Castle Creek Valley is one of our last remaining areas of pristine wilderness.  Can you just imagine the hideous impact of such a blight, right as one passes by the hospital and heads up the valley?  Welcome to the Castle Creek wilderness, here's a really dense housing project. 
And lest I ignore the obvious questions of corruption... the terms of the acquisition of this parcel (circa 2007) and the inconceivable density of the proposed project reflect the arrogance and questionable ethics of our past AND CURRENT leadership. Steve Barwick (and his staff) work directly for our sitting mayor and council. They are most certainly well aware of this outrageous proposal, and ostensibly support it.
If you would like to review the 250-page application, please contact Hillary Seminick in the city planning office at  It was simply too big for me to link it here.

But, given this top-line overview of what the city has done and is trying to do, if you are inclined to stop this madness before it starts, please send an email reflecting your displeasure (disgust?) to Planning & Zoning and City Council today:

There is a site visit on Tuesday at noon and a special P&Z meeting this Tuesday at 4:30 in City Hall where the 488 Castle Creek application will be discussed.  If you are in town, please plan to attend and be prepared to voice your concerns to the commissioners.

ISSUE #137: ANT ALERT - School Board Election  10/18/17

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." -- Winston Churchill


Another Aspen election is upon us.  If you live within the boundaries of the Aspen School District, you will be receiving a mail-in ballot in coming days for the upcoming school board election on November 7.  This election is mail-ballot ONLY.  If you have questions, please contact the Pitkin County Clerk at (970) 920-5180 x5.
The Red Ant rarely wades into such murky waters as the school board elections, but this year's contest is different.  The race features 5 candidates for 3 seats on the 5-member board.  The three incumbents (Susan Marolt, Margeaux Johansson and Dwayne Romero) are running, as are two officers of the District Accountability Committee (DAC), Jonathan Nickell and Susan Zimet.  
The Aspen schools are the best of the best, right?  That's the word on the street.  Plus, they earn national recognition.  And based on this recognition, you, the voters and taxpayers, regularly approve their tin-cup rattling for funds, be it City sales tax extensions or new Snowmass Village property taxes.  And that's not to mention that the schools are the largest line item on your local property taxes.  But, as I have come to learn, all is not what it seems.
In 2010, notably, Aspen School District (ASD) was awarded its first "Accredited with Distinction" recognition by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), specifically because the average test scores in language arts, math and science were above the 90th percentile, and all grade levels (elementary, middle and high school) were rated as "exceeds" expectations in academic achievement.  Then, in 2012, Aspen High School was ranked #1 in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report.  
It was a great time indeed for the Aspen schools.  But now it's 2017 and the situation has changed. Dramatically. In short, things at the Aspen schools are not what they would outwardly appear.  And certainly not what you'd think.  And absolutely not what you're being told.  In fact, you won't see these disturbing metrics coming from the ASD.  The numbers presented recently in the public realm are quite different, and these "discrepancies," recently brought to the attention of the CDE, have caused serious (and ongoing) concern at the state level. 

As a result of this current controversy, the disturbing trend lines and their source data have become hot election topics, as well they should.  (Maybe it's the color, but The Red Ant prefers to compare apples to apples when looking at data, thus my sole focus is on data from the CDE where ALL Colorado schools - public, private and charter - report. Source documents are linked where noted.)
Notably, in 2017 (vs 2010):
  • The ASD overall average percentile rank in language arts, math and science, has dropped to just below the 76th percentile, a 14.5% decline.  (Source doc A)
  • The elementary, middle and high schools are now rated as only "meets" (vs. "exeeds") expectations in academic achievement.  (Source doc B)
  • During the 2010-2017 time period, the Aspen Community School, a charter school (elementary and middle school only), has made great improvements (56th percentile to 79th in elementary language and math rankings, and 87th to 93rd percentile in middle school language and math) that have earned it an "exceeds" rating from the CDE. (Source doc C)
  • In Aspen, a dramatic and alarming decline in performance has been at the elementary school level, dropping from 88th percentile to 65th on average, placing it in the bottom 32% of 896 elementary schools in the state.  As a result of these poor marks, AES is now required by the CDE to submit an "Improvement Plan."
  • Aspen High School is not ranked among the top 49 high schools in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report.
  • give grades between B and down to C- for all Aspen School District schools, except Aspen Community School which gets an A+ for middle school.  
  • School Digger ranks Aspen as the 50th school district in Colorado, down 22 spots since 2016.  
  • In 2017, Aspen School District DID receive enough points to again qualify for "Accredited with Distinction" recognition, however, a closer look reveals that compared to 2010, this year's rating is based less on outstanding academic results and instead on things like graduation rates, drop-out rates and college matriculation -- based on the CDE's accreditation point system. 
  • And note: The Aspen Community School is a semi-independent part of the Aspen School District, yet, as a charter school, it operates under different leadership and from a different playbook.  As such, its numbers are baked in to the evaluation of the district, clearly improving the public school's elementary and middle school ratings.
Another alarming trend is teacher turnover.  The numbers below speak for themselves and do nothing but illustrate that amidst increased spending, the culture (and salaries) for teachers in the Aspen School District is such that they're simply not sticking around.
Here are the teacher turnover numbers, again, from the CDE:
2010-2011    8.9%
2011-2012    10.2%
2012-2013    15%
2013-2014    20.9%
2014-2015    11.4%
2015-2016    15.3%
2016-2017    17.5% (the state average was 16.9%)

And, FYI, some interesting comparative salary info HERE.
This is likely the first you've heard of these disturbing trends.  It's no surprise.  The Aspen Schools are a pillar of our community.  They are not going to broadcast their shortcomings.  But NOW is the time for accountability. No more burying the facts and accepting poor results!  We MUST make significant and dramatic changes to the school board that will bring IMMEDIATE leadership, accountability and improvements to reverse the aforementioned declines and create a culture that embraces and prioritizes student-focused learning and teacher support.
Who better to do this than two officers of the District Accountability Committee?!  Did you even know we had such an oversight committee?  It turns out that this 10-member body has studied the data and trends, and made specific recommendations in April to the existing school board in its annual report on a Unified Improvement Plan, yet the board was resistant to the cold hard facts and the report was rebuffed.  We can no longer afford to simply rest on our 2010 and 2012 laurels!!  It's obviously not working.  Nor can we accept reports of an alternative reality from current leadership. Going along to get along, the acceptance of mediocrity and rubber-stamping the status quo is clearly and measurably detrimental to our students.
With all due respect to those who generously serve on the school board, given the very real challenges facing our schools, The Red Ant recommends that you vote for the two non-incumbents, Jonathan Nickell and Susan Zimet, to bring the knowledge and acumen honed from their roles on the DAC to the school board to immediately address these critical problems.
It begins with acknowledging that there are problems. Nickell and Zimet have proposed several actionable recommendations to address the specific issues:
    • Raise salaries (spending has increased but not salaries)
    • Improve the culture of discontent (Source: CDE TELL survey)
    • Prioritize and address housing needs
    • Provide more professional development and training
    • Adjust the curriculum (it's not aligned with tests anymore)
    • Confront the real metrics
    • Zero tolerance for or acceptance of mediocrity (we've taken our eyes off the ball)
    • Prioritize learning 
    • Create an academic subcommittee on the school board to better monitor student achievement
    • Raise goals (get back to at least 2010 levels)
    • Define metrics
    • Create a culture of accountability 
X     Jonathan Nickell
                      X     Susan Zimet
For additional information:

ISSUE #136: Summer AmusemANT?!  7/28/17

"Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks. 
" -- Doug Larson

If you can't win the old-fashioned way, change the way, right?  On the heels of the June 6 run-off election that put Ward Hauenstein on council, two aggrieved candidates, Torre and Skippy, announced plans to rally their millennial brethren (never mind Torre isn't one, it's just that his mentality is similar to theirs) to lobby for wholesale changes to Aspen's spring municipal elections. This clearly stems from the fact their demographic hardly bothered to vote (despite both the general election and the run-off being conducted by mail-in ballots and administered by perhaps the most generous and lenient city clerk ever, who moved heaven and earth to get ballots to those who requested them).  The two believe that if they force a date change to Aspen's voting season (making it earlier) via an amendment to the city charter, this issue will fix itself.  And if Aspen were to additionally re-adopt Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) and/or allow everyone to vote via the internet, all the better.  
Recall the major mess that IRV caused in 2009, resulting in its immediate repeal in 2010 and a significant lawsuit against the city that they eventually settled in 2012.  (History HERE.) Aspen has a LONG memory, kiddos.  We've been down THAT path before and we ain't going back!!  As for internet voting, are you kidding me?  The whole purpose of these wanton changes is so that the two one-namers can gather their young sycophants over free beers and pizzas at the brewery and group vote together.  It's about the only way they can figure how to create a voting block!  Millennials don't have stamps, you see, and they look at voting as something they have a right to do, but only exercise that right if it's easy.
Ahhhh, but wait.  Councilman Adam Frisch, prepping for his inevitable run for mayor next cycle and wanting to court the millennial demographic, quickly applauded the concept, ignoring the potential downsides by stating unequivocally that more voters is always better.  Always?  Just think: Aspen's ever-present laws of unintended consequences are waiting to pounce on a potential date change.  Imagine if elections were held the first week of April instead of May.  Many more people would indeed be in town and could arguably more readily access, vote and submit their ballots, but the question remains - in the heart of Aspen's March high season, would they?  Would they actually take the time to learn about the issues or meet the candidates?  Skippy emphasizes that such a change to the election calendar is a necessary means of ending "voter disenfranchisement" in Aspen.  (There's always a discriminatory rationale when these whiners don't get their way, isn't there?)  He goes on to say that those who are "disenfranchised" are so to the degree that they are already on vacation in May, despite being "younger, poorer and more diverse" than the rest of the Aspen registered voters who manage to ask for an absentee ballot or make arrangements to vote.  Yep, he said it HERE.
Furthermore, with an early April election, who is going to run for office?  With the bulk of those eligible for candidacy working their tails off in late February and March, often at multiple jobs, just who will be able to make the necessary rounds of door-knocking and phone-calling that have become mandates for voter consideration?  Or will it be self-selecting -- only those who do not have to work can campaign through 5-6 weeks of the high season?  I suppose that works well for Skippy, as he has no discernible means of employment, and Torre (who I'm sure is not through running for elected office in Aspen) who teaches tennis in the summertime.  But if you're like me, and appreciate a diverse mix of citizens at the council table, especially including those who work, the perceived "conveniences" of an earlier election cycle are heavily outweighed by the "inconveniences": less representative candidates, a distracted voter base, and especially, pandering to one voter group that has proven itself thus far to be too disinterested to participate in local elections.  No, thanks!!
You've seen it.  It's been there for months -- the big "#RESIST" (anti-Trump) banner prominently hanging on the front of the subsidized housing complex at 7th and Main, across from the Hickory House for all who enter Aspen to see.  After I'd heard from a critical mass of you, I contacted APCHA, because surely the housing authority has rules about political banners, right?  Wrong.  But the homeowner's association of that very complex sure does, and they're ABUNDANTLY clear.
Their HOA Declarations (7.8 p24 HERE) state: "No signs or advertising devices of any nature shall be erected or maintained on any part of the project without the prior written consent of the Association, which, solely with the respect to the commercial unit, shall not be unreasonably withheld."  (There are no commercial units in the building, by the way.)
My correspondence with the APCHA director about this "discrepancy" proved futile, although he was entirely sympathetic. As unbelievable as it may sound, APCHA cannot force an HOA in its portfolio (that we all paid for) to adhere to its own rules.  Yep, it's another example of the inmates running the asylum.  He even ran it up the city management flagpole, only to be told that a formal (signed) complaint must first be lodged with the Community Development department.  The city attorney was pessimistic about any remedy because the city would not get involved in "free speech" issues.  It was agreed that HOA's SHOULD enforce their own rules, but APCHA was reminded that it has no legal authority to force an HOA to do so.
The issue certainly raises a host of questions and puts the answers on a very slippery slope. The Red Ant ponders, what if said banner were pro-Trump?  A Confederate flag?  Or what about a swastika?  What would the city do then?  Has Aspen become the place where political speech is only protected for certain points of view? 
Just as a refresher, in 2012 Aspen enacted a ban on reusable plastic bags accompanied by a 20 cent charge for paper bags if grocery shoppers did not bring their own.  This "fee," as the city deemed it, was immediately challenged as a "tax," that, according to Colorado's own TABOR laws, mandates a public vote for approval.  The non-profit Colorado Union of Taxpayers immediately sued the city on what they see as a violation of TABOR.  In 2014, the city prevailed in district court. No surprise.  Then in 2015, the city again prevailed at the appellate level.  In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, intending to determine, "What standard of review a court should apply when deciding whether the levying of a charge by a local government, without voter approval, violates TABOR."  Oral arguments were made before the Supremes in June 2017.  Their decision will have precedent-setting ramifications with far-reaching impacts and could possibly establish a less-stringent government fee-setting standard.  After all, the bag "fee" is a framework that can be replicated for anything.  We all await the outcome.  (And, FYI, The Red Ant has always believed this so-called "fee" to be an illegal tax.)
The strangest thing of all to contemplate is why Aspen didn't call it a tax to begin with and simply put it to a vote.  In greenie Aspen, it would easily have passed. Could it be that the consequences are intentional -- to launch a seemingly innocuous trial balloon in a small town setting in hopes of CREATING an avenue to bypass TABOR, enabling new government fees for just about anything?  Food for thought.
In case you had forgotten what "art" is, the Aspen Art Museum remains in its role to show you.  This season's external installment, part of the museum's landscape requirement to provide rotating art exhibits on the corner of Spring and Hyman outside of the museum itself, features a 12' tall, L-shaped wall in the middle of the pedestrian plaza.  According to the Aspen Daily News, the intent of this piece is to "challenge the viewer's comfort level and push them to re-evaluate their surroundings."  Aspen's community development office approved the installation because it met mandatory ADA accessibility and sight triangle distance requirements.  The museum director added, "If it's unclear and confusing, that's ok."  Is it though?
We worked hard to elect him.  And I was the first to say that we wouldn't always agree.  But Ward made an astounding decision recently that raises questions about his role on council.  Yes, already.  
The issue at hand was a vote on the financing of the city's new Taj Mahal City Hall.  Yes, you're right, we kinda won 16 months ago when it was decided that city offices would remain in the historic Armory and a new building would be built on Galena Plaza for additional office space (vs the proposed "one roof" 50,000 sf Taj). (Reference ISSUE #122)  But the city's new building has grown and grown and grown, so now it's the Armory AND nearly 40,000 sf of the proposed Taj, approved by council this year on April 3.  But to build or not to build was NOT the question on July 11. It was simply how to pay for it.  All $23 million of it.  Two choices were presented to council:  general obligation bonds (GOB) or certificates of participation (COP).  It was rather straightforward.  GOB, by law, must be approved by the voters.  COP do not, plus they're more expensive.  (COP have become a popular voter work-around, avoiding the legal requirement that the city not incur large debt without taxpayer approval.)  In Aspen's case, GOB would save the city $400,000 in present value dollars (a conservative estimate).  But apparently financing costs are immaterial in Aspen. 
The simple question on financing was apparently too simple, so council conflated and distorted the issue to such a degree that one of the more contentious meetings in recent history ensued:
  • Ann re-lived the old argument of whether or not to build a new city hall, which was totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.
  • Adam disparagingly characterized citizens' legal right to vote on incurring public debt as "holding an election every other day."
  • Steve, ever confused by complex issues even though this wasn't one, questioned whether this issue is a tax question or a land use question.  (It's neither.  It's a financing question.)
  • With utter contempt for their constituents, and, fearing a NO vote, a campaign where the project's opponents might mis-represent the city's need for massive amounts of new office space, and voters who wouldn't understand the nuances of the space allegedly needed, Ann, Adam and Steve voted for COP. (They know better than the voters.)  
  • Several vocal citizens who oppose the project in its entirety managed to completely derail the meeting which was specifically about financing.  Sure, they're entitled to their opinions during public comment (and for the record I support their premise), but the vote of the evening was not an up/down vote on the project.  This was neither the time nor the place.
  • City Manager Steve Barwick weighed in against GOB, comparing voter's enthusiasm for voting to tax themselves for government buildings with getting a colonoscopy.  (What a guy!?)  Besides, 40,000 sf of more office space enables him to continue to enlarge his already bloated bureaucracy, despite the fact that now days people simply work differently, and laptops and tele-commuting are modern and viable alternatives to the formal office settings of yesteryear. And note: Barwick will be the maharaja of the new Taj, so more is, of course, more.
  • Bert wisely voted for GOB, stating that if voters say no, it's time to go back to the drawing board.
  • And sadly, Ward fell prey to the chaos of the unstructured meeting and lost his focus of representing the will of the people, the very principle and promise he ran on.  He started the night strongly in favor of GOB.  But when the meeting came off the rails and became a street fight about whether or not to build the building itself, Ward caved.  Fearing a campaign of misinformation (hell, aren't they all) and a future of leasing office space from the private sector, he lost his way. Losing the focus that the only real question at hand was one of financing options, he flip-flopped and in the end voted for COP.  Yep, our guy whose track record of standing up to the government and empathizing with citizens voted to let the city bypass voters on a major debt issue because the bureaucrats feared a NO vote. By joining the other three with his vote, Ward signed on to the long-standing political belief in city hall that "they" in power know better than the rest of us.
But it is not too late.  There is one last re-affirmation vote on the financing in early August.  The Red Ant encourages you to write to Ward ASAP HERE and help guide him back on track.  Please remind him to focus on the issue at hand in the upcoming vote: FINANCING. Period. Hold him to his citizen-centric campaign promises. His concerns about the city leasing more and more office space at private sector rates are certainly valid, but that is another issue entirely.  If the public denies the cheaper GOB at the polls, council can still proceed - later - with COP, at their own political peril.  Or, as Bert contends, they can go back to the drawing board.  It's just a matter of following logical steps and not getting overwhelmed by the chaos and turmoil the mayor allows and enables at his meetings.
The following are several dubious projects and programs that The Red Ant is closely following.  Look for more information in coming issues.  I'm on it!!
A proposed pedestrian/bike trail linking the Marolt Housing project and the campus shared by the Aspen Country Day School (ACDS) and the Aspen Music Festival and School along Castle Creek Road is back on the front burner after a decade.  The current proposal is for a 3300 ft long path from the existing speed bumps at Marolt to the ACDS entrance, with a cost estimate of $6 million.  Yep, $6 million.  That's nearly $2000 a lineal foot.  The schools have wanted this for decades and 10 years ago an earlier proposal was shot down in the courts when local property owners sued over the county's failure to follow its own permitting process and dubious public outreach.  The County is back, seeking input this time (however, not more cost effective alternatives), but the gist remains the same: a cantilevered path above a steep embankment, 8 ft wide with curbs on both sides, that's covered in snow for about 6 months of the year from the Castle Creek snowplows, with a 200 ft stretch that is subject to rockslides from the opposite side of the road, necessitating the removal of 100+ trees and diminishing property values along the way.
The rationale is on one hand, safety. ACDS wants its kids to ride bikes to school, and the Music School students often walk between Marolt and the campus during the 9-week summer season despite the free RFTA service.  Plus, the county wants to connect the campus to its trail system. There is also a biker safety argument floating around but that's less of a concern in my book because road bikers are going to use the road, regardless.  On the other hand, the opposition is quick to point out the environmental impact (removal of so many trees along their properties), the aesthetics (a cantilevered monolith in their front yards and along the gateway to the pristine Castle Creek Valley), and the phenomenally high cost for such a small constituency when other options have yet to be considered.  
A recent public meeting presented what's at stake, again, and the positions have changed very little since 2007.  The price has tripled, however, and the politics are hot.  Respected longtime local Jon Busch wrote before the meeting that this 6/10 of a mile trail is "the most important missing piece of our trail inventory," and without it, someone is going to get hit, or worse.  After the meeting, Busch immediately wrote that he sees it a bit differently.  And kudos for him for hearing the other side and cogitating on it.  His "Spartan" idea sounds to me like a VERY workable solution.  How about duplicating local examples already at work?  Like Cemetery Lane, narrow the road and slow down the traffic in this section.  This will create a shoulder for bikes and pedestrians, which will be paved like the roadway but will have bollards placed to keep cars from crossing into the designated pathway.  "Lower cost.  Not a single tree cut down.  What's not to like?" Busch wrote.  And regarding the rockslide danger?  Emulate the barrier used at Shale Bluffs.  
I like the thinking, but will the Castle Creek Caucus play ball with this more Spartan trail in their midst?  They prevailed in the courts last time and are willing to fight again.  What about the schools? They want the trail so badly at any (public) cost that they even filmed a propaganda video of the entire 4thand 5th grade ACDS classes on a "mandatory bike day" to show the dangerous chaos of many children riding bikes along the road, despite a known survey that showed on average 3 students and 3 teachers rode their bikes to campus during school days in September and October 2016. Then there's the county's Open Space and Trails board (OST) that had a $12.5 million fund balance at the end of 2016.  These folks are always looking for projects (irrespective of cost) to justify the perpetuation of their dedicated funding source.  
To be continued....
In 2016, the city filed controversial due diligence to maintain its conditional water rights and stated intent to build ginormous dams and reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys to meet future municipal water needs in the case of an apocalyptic drought.  Perhaps seeing the error of its ways, city council is now considering a host of other water storage options.  Con$ultants are working to determine if the land beneath the golf course, the Maroon Creek Club course and/or Cozy Point Ranch is viable for water storage, and the city is also under contract for a giant land purchase in Woody Creek to which they hope to transfer their existing water rights.  These 63 acres have been on the market for ages with no action, but are now under contract for $2.65 million, likely far more than the land is worth given its prime location next to an industrial gravel pit/asphalt yard, race track and antennae farm.  This purchase, reminiscent of the city's $18 million BMC lumberyard purchase in 2008, is considered the centerpiece for a re-worked solution to the dams/reservoirs scenario that is currently being challenged by no fewer than 10 respected environmental entities, including: American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Wilderness Workshop, Western Reserve Advocates and Pitkin County's own Healthy Rivers board, among others.
It's up to the water court to decide if the city's conditional water rights can be transferred in this manner, but if they can, look for the city to complete their purchase and spend untold millions constructing the facilities and infrastructure to collect and move water UP VALLEY to Aspen. 

ISSUE #135: Simply fANTastic: Ward Wins!!!  6/16/17

"The person who said winning isn't everything never won anything."     --   Mia Hamm

If I've written it here once, I've written it numerous times -- in the People's Republic of Aspen, your vote REALLY, REALLY counts!!  Just 1837 voters (of 5333 ballots mailed to active voters -- a mere 34%) bothered to vote in the run-off election between Ward Hauenstein and former councilman Torre for the remaining open council seat following incumbent Art Daily's defeat and incumbent Ann Mullins' re-election on May 2. (Ann won her seat outright with over 45% +1 of the votes cast and avoided a run-off.)  In the end, just 27 votes separated the candidates -- a narrow 1.5% margin of victory for Ward. (Ward 932 - Torre 905.) This was particularly notable, not only because of the exceedingly close vote count, but also because the results defied recent history; Torre and Ward qualified for the council seat run-off on May 2 based on the outcome of the May 2 general election in which Torre garnered 973 votes to Ward's 895. According to the Aspen Times, no candidate has made up a deficit in a runoff election after gaining fewer votes than their opponent in the general election.

As a long time supporter of Ward's and having endorsed him in The Red Ant in both the 2017 general and run-off elections, I know firsthand that his victory is attributable to a couple of key factors.  In short: having a compelling rationale for running, reaching out across the Aspen voter spectrum, and simply (or not so simply) doing the hard work.  

Ward, a frequent critic of the lack of transparency and poor processes of city hall, ran on three principal issues -- optimizing our subsidized housing inventory, protecting local vendors from predatory practices of deadbeat businesses, and ensuring that Aspen voters have a say should the local government ever want to build dams in the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys. These issues clearly appealed to the local electorate, but it was likely his "we can do this right now" ideas and plans to address them that impressed voters the most.  In short order, look for Ward to prioritize these issues with a strong push right out of the gate to elevate them onto council's Top Ten Priorities list.  He envisions the immediate formation of a task force that will look at different solutions for optimizing the housing inventory that we already have in our portfolio.  He will also look for viable ways that the city can hold businesses accountable for paying their local vendors, perhaps through linking business licenses to fulfilling contracted financial obligations. And regarding the dams, it will take a change to the city charter through a vote, but Ward is adamant that voters should have the final word if/when future councils decide to dam our pristine wilderness. (Having spearheaded the campaigns to defeat the Hydro Plant in 2012 and the Base2 lodge in 2015, Ward - if anyone - knows how to get it done at the voter level.)

We are a diverse and multi-faceted electorate with widely and wildly divergent priorities and opinions.  I'm always curious to study the endorsement lists of the various candidates when these are proudly printed in candidates' newspaper ads.  Ward is his own man.  He belongs to no cabal.  But he has skillfully managed to navigate, win votes and attention, and effectively cut through the many rich and differing and vital and spicy and gooey layers of all that make Aspen, Aspen.  In the end, that's a huge advantage when running for elected office here!!

It's one thing to contract out for a political mailing and buy some ads in the local papers.  It's another thing entirely to study the voter list, target specific voters with messages on issues they are known to care about, knock on hundreds of doors and make personal phone calls.  (In his estimate, Ward knocked on 650 doors and made over 900 phone calls.)  It's hard work.  It's time consuming.  It's even more of a challenge when running a full-time business. The dedication and personal connection mean a lot here, perhaps more than they should, but when just 27 votes make or break a campaign, those last 55 reminder calls on the afternoon of Election Day are clearly well worth the effort!! 

THE 2017 - 2019 COUNCIL
As the sole "new guy," Ward joined councilmen Adam Frisch and Bert Myrin at the council table, along with recently re-elected councilwoman Ann Mullins and mayor Steve Skadron, when they began the new term on June 12.  (Frisch and Myrin are 2 years into their 4-year terms, Frisch's second and Myrin's first. Ward and Ann now begin their 4 year terms, and Steve begins his third and final 2-year term as mayor.)
The Red Ant is delighted with the election outcome.  Thank you to all who voted.  It is important that we have a new voice at the table.  In addition to Ward's fresh new attitude and perspective, we have gained the public service of a good man. Ward is honest. Ward is hard-working.  He will be prepared.  He will listen to all sides.  He is beholden to no one and will make thoughtful decisions.  We may not always agree - and I don't for a minute expect that we will - but if I know one thing, it's that Ward won't make impulsive decisions or cast irrational votes.  He will hear us out.

I am currently pulling together and crunching the numbers from the recent elections and hope to have some interesting tidbits for you in the next issue. This will be particularly fitting given the recent activism of defeated candidates Torre and Skippy, who are already organizing and agitating to make wholesale changes to Aspen's voting apparatus, of course without even contemplating Aspen's nemesis -- the law of unintended consequences.  (I believe the data will show that the millennial demographic voting block didn't vote, and the two aspire to coddle these voters in the future with beer parties and group voting shenanigans during the ski season to "make it easy for them to vote" before they dash off to Moab and other off-season pursuits.)  Stay tuned.

... whose clever post-election email message to The Red Ant warrants sharing with the Aspen voters who got it done:  

"Thank you for reWARDing us with Mr. Hauenstein."

ISSUE #134: I MeANT to Tell You to Vote!!  5/23/2017

"While I can't promise you that I'm going to be a perfect candidate and I can't promise you that I'm not going to make mistakes, I can unequivocally promise you that no one, no one, will work harder on your behalf, no one will fight harder with you and no one will make you more proud."   
Alexi Giannoulias


As predicted, it was a low turnout election.  Of approximately 6400 registered voters in Aspen, 5426 are considered "active," and of those, only 2413 cast a ballot on May 2 in Aspen's recent municipal election.
Congratulations to Steve Skadron, re-elected (no surprise) to his third and final mayoral term with 1875 of the votes cast (challenger Lee Mulcahy received 378 and another 160 left the mayoral "bubble" blank), and incumbent Ann Mullins, who garnered 1108 votes, enough to be re-elected to her second council term in the first round.  As a result of no other candidate reaching the 45% plus one threshold, the No. 2 and No. 3 vote getters in the 6-person field will face a run-off for the one remaining council seat on June 6:  Torre (with 972 votes) and Ward Hauenstein (who captured 894).

Ballots will again be mailed to all active voters in the city last week.  Early voting will be held from 8a to 5p, Monday - Friday, from May 22 through June 5 at the city clerk's office on the second floor of City Hall (130 S. Galena), including from 9a to 3p on Saturday, June 3.
You may also request an absentee ballot by completing THIS form and returning it to the clerk's office.  Forms must be received by June 2 in order for a ballot to be sent out to you.
PLEASE take the time to vote in this run-off election.  Yes, it matters.  A lot.  And your vote most certainly counts!
Questions?  Please contact the city clerk at (970) 429-2685.

I'm not going to change a thing endorsement-wise.  The June 6 ballot has two names on it and I encourage you to again vote for Ward Hauenstein -- for many reasons.  Let's face it, we know of a few issues facing council in the near-term, but no one can predict which critical issues will arise to challenge council in the next four years.  Given that two of the three incumbents running for re-election were successful, NOW is the time for a new voice at the council table to change the dynamic and bring fresh ideas and perspective to the debate.  Aspen needs a council member with the right qualities to handle ANY issue in the community's best interest.  Both candidates are eligible, but only Ward is qualified.  Specifically:
  • Proven leadership when leadership is needed:  Ward's willingness to stand up and speak truth to power was evident when, as a private citizen, he led the successful petition efforts and subsequent campaigns to challenge council decisions and defeat both the Hydro Plant (2012) and the Base 2 lodge (2015).
  • Strong on the issues:  Ward is committed to protecting local businesses from predatory practices (such as implementing legal ramifications for businesses who "stiff" local vendors), retaining Aspen's water rights but opposing dams (by looking at alternative water storage solutions and locations), and developing innovative ideas to optimize workforce housing (support for a program census, encouraging compliance enforcement, offering incentives for "right-sizing," and requiring owner maintenance of the existing physical structures) in order to protect this $1 billion community asset.
  • Mature and open-minded:  Ward has a well-known track record of being accessible, receptive to all viewpoints, honest in his dealings and willing to change his mind.
  • A principled and deep thinker:  Ward is interested, informed, engaged and prepared.  He will not only read your emails, he will give them proper consideration and thoughtfully respond.
  • Independent in his opinions:  Ward recognizes merit and goodwill in all sides of the issues. He knows how to accept criticism without personalizing it, while still being willing and able to test the status quo and challenge what doesn't pass the smell test.
  • A local small business owner:  Ward's decades of experience owning and running a local, small computer company has given him unique perspective through his regular interface with Aspen's local businesses. This personal access has provided him with insight and a first-hand understanding of the ongoing and evolving challenges faced by those, like himself, who are doing their very best to make a living in Aspen.
  • Dedicated to his family:  Ward met his school teacher wife Mimi in the Bell Mountain Lift line.  They have two grown daughters who were educated in the Aspen Public Schools, graduated from top colleges (Tufts and Brown), and are active and productive young women with interesting careers and strong ties to their hometown.
  • Active in Aspen Chapel:  Ward's commitment to Aspen extends well beyond his family, his business and his civic activism. He is also a compassionate leader and dedicated volunteer in his faith community.
I'll be sharing some fascinating voter turn-out facts and data (and some "you can't make this sh*t up" stories) once this one is in the rearview mirror!

ISSUE #133: 2017 EndorsemANTs  4/11/2017

"Democracy is a device which ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve."  
                 --  George Bernard Shaw


This season's yawner of a municipal election is a mail-only ballot one.  If you are a voter in the City of Aspen, your ballot was mailed to you yesterday, April 10.  Look for it.  Open it.  Don't dilly dally. Vote.  Be done with it.
This is an incredibly uninspiring election.  There are no issues to decide, just the opportunity to vote for Mayor and two Council seats.  Expect VERY low voter turnout, as much a result of the apathetic Aspen voter as a relatively apathetic slate, which, somewhat ironically, makes your vote even more impactful and therefore important.  So remember, in my opinion, no matter how boring the choices, the act of voting upholds your right to complain about the outcome!!  Don't lose that!! 
And whatever you do, DO NOT throw your ballot away at the post office.  Mail ballot elections are ripe for voter fraud.  If you choose not to vote, please destroy your ballot.
Incumbent Mayor Steve Skadron is running for his third and final term against Lee Mulcahy - artist, property manager, taxi driver, substitute teacher and local agitator.  In the Council race, laconically-inclined incumbents Ann Mullins and Art Daily seek re-election, but are being challenged by long-time local business owner and civic volunteer Ward Hauenstein, "whiny millennial" posterboy and self-promoting activist and organizer Skippy (yes, that's his real name) Mesirow, tennis-teaching former councilman Torre (like a phoenix he rises from the ashes), and PhD/artist and Mulcahy affililiate, Sue Tatem.
A strange Aspen pathology infects us all during election season.  It seems that when discussing candidates for office, one MUST preface all comments with the statement, "He/she is a good guy/gal...."  Fine.  Thank you to all 8 candidates for throwing your hats into the ring.  It takes a lot of guts.  I am certain that you are ALL "good guys and gals" by Aspen standards.
When endorsing candidates, The Red Ant prefers to focus on policy issues over personalities, track records instead of propaganda statements, and leadership acumen over self-promoting schmooze.  I've learned the hard way that sometimes even the nicest guy or gal isn't the best candidate for elected office.  But now I am officially on the record with the "good guys/gals" thing.  Moving right along....
  • The mayor must be elected with 50% + 1 of the votes cast on May 2. There are two candidates and one position up for grabs. There will be no run-off election for mayor.
  • Council candidates, on the other hand, must garner 45% + 1 of the votes cast on May 2 in order to be elected on the first ballot to one of the two open seats.  
  • Now this is important. Because there are two positions up for election in the council race as opposed to just one in the mayor's race, "votes cast" shall be calculated by dividing the sum of all votes cast for all city council candidates by 2.  With 6 candidates running for two seats, there is a STRONG likelihood of a run-off.
  • Run-off election option 1: On May 2, if only one council candidate passes the 45% +1 threshold, that candidate is elected to the first open seat, and the next two council candidates with the highest number of votes advance to a run-off on June 6, when each elector may cast only one vote.  The candidate with the highest number of votes on June 6 wins the second open seat.
  • Run-off election option 2: On May 2, if no council candidate reaches the 45% + 1 threshold, the four highest vote-getters advance to the run-off on June 6, where each elector may cast two votes.  The two highest vote-getters win the two open seats.
  • If needed, and it likely will be, the run-off election is Tuesday, June 6.  Ballots will be mailed out by May 22 with early voting beginning that same day at City Hall.  
  • If you know you are going to be out of town on June 6 and likely will miss receipt of your mail-in run-off ballot, please refer to the city clerk's website for more info HERE.  Questions?  970-429-2685
If you read no further, you will miss out on excerpts from each candidate's responses to The Red Ant's 2017 Candidate Questionnaire -- AND my rationale for endorsing the candidate(s) who I feel will best represent us with thoughtful, pragmatic and informed decisions, while looking at the bigger picture, in order to combat Aspen's ever-present nemesis, the Law of Unintended Consequences, lurking in every shadow and around every turn.  But for this 2017 election, if I am honest with myself -- and you -- if you stop now, you really aren't missing anything - it's a boring election and The Red Ant's ONLYendorsement is Ward Hauenstein for Council. Period.
That's right. No endorsement for Mayor. I cannot support either candidate. And no endorsement for the second Council seat either. Neither of the incumbents have dazzled me, in fact they just make me tired. I wish there was some excitement in this race, but so far I haven't seen any. 
Furthermore, for the first time in history, a candidate has flipped the bird at The Red Ant readership by not submitting answers to the candidate questionnaire.  Heck, it happens to me personally from time to time so I can take it.  But what Skippy Mesirow is really doing is telling you - my 2500 readers - where to put it.  Is it arrogance?   Indifference?  Hubris?  Probably all three.  But whatever you do, just don't vote for Skippy Mesirow. He doesn't want your vote.
I have long espoused the benefits of what's called "bullet voting."  This is a process that makes it more likely that your desired candidate will be elected when running for one of several openings (in our case, two) amidst a field of competitors.  The theory is to vote for just your favorite candidate, thereby boosting your candidate's total by one with a sole "bullet" vote.  By not voting for a second candidate although you are permitted to, you are reducing the number of votes used to calculate the 45% threshold for victory while increasing only your candidate's individual vote total. 

It's just math. And strategy. And there's nothing fuzzy or improper about doing this to get your desired candidate elected. "Bullet voting" merely causes your candidate's likelihood of garnering one of the two open council seats to increase disproportionately to the likelihood of other candidates getting the same result.

In this year's tedious excuse for an election, The Red Ant advocates a "bullet vote" for Ward Hauenstein.  

If you employ this voting strategy, Ward has a solid shot of being elected in the first round on May 2 (with at least 45% + 1 vote). That is the goal.  Simply put, we need to get Ward in on the first ballot, especially with two incumbents running for re-election amidst a crowded and competitive field.  To get Ward on council in the first round gives us one "friendly," and by that I mean thoughtful, prepared, even-handed, interested, principled and approachable.  The field will then be democratically narrowed for a June 6 run-off for the second council seat, and we will cross that bridge when we get there.

Yep, Ward is my guy.  We met as election commissioners amidst the Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV) brou-ha-ha in 2010 and have been collaborators, co-conspirators, respectful adversaries and friends ever since.  This is not to imply that we always agree - we don't.  But we have a seven-year-long running dialog about all things Aspen, and have worked to understand each other's viewpoints when we come at things differently.  We seek each other out on the issues, as much due to mutual respect as to learn.  Ward is a trusted confidante who always listens before making a decision.  We teamed up to defeat the Hydro Plant in 2012, and when he led the anti-variance bandwagon as it related to the Base 2 hotel project in 2015 and later championed Referendum 1 which amended the Charter to legally stop the "variance" trend, I didn't necessarily agree with him, but based on his sound reasoning and consensus building, I modified my stance to a mere lukewarm opposition.  (Simply put, he made a lot of sense -- and took the pulse of the community to heart.)  
When he prevailed, I smiled.  He'd done it again.  He showed up (as he always does), made the case, worked tirelessly toward his goal, built yet another diverse coalition and whooped the opposition at the polls.  And no spiking the football for Ward.  That just isn't his style.  It was simply on to the next thing he cares about, including, most recently, an impassioned desire to find a legally binding method to protect local small businesses from predatory "clients" who blow into town and stiff the locals when bills for their services come due.  He knows all about it firsthand, owning a respected small computer company that serves many businesses here. 
As a 40-year resident, Ward has seen and lived through the changes in Aspen.  He is known for acknowledging the reality that "the only constant is change."  This is not at all to imply that he is pushing for change for change's sake; quite the opposite.  It's just that he is a responsible realist, and strives to deal with substantive issues in a substantive manner.  It will shock Aspen's political system to have a representative who listens as completely and cares as deeply up there at the council table.  

I have long encouraged my friend to take his interest in and commitment to Aspen civic matters to the next level by running for elected office.  Now is the time.  We need his insight.  We will benefit from his thoughtfulness.  Let's get Ward elected on the first ballot.  Please join me in "bullet voting" for Ward Hauenstein.
The Red Ant sent each of the candidates a questionnaire several weeks ago that touches on what I consider issues of the day.  I am thankful to 7 of the 8 candidates for their time spent on these questions.  YOU deserve to hear from each of them in their own words.  My 12 questions follow, with excerpts and snippets from the individual responses.   (The candidates' full and unedited responses are linked at the end of this issue.)  And, I know, it's truly remarkable how several of these candidates could not manage to actually answer the questions asked.  I'm really not sure why.  Can't read?  Don't understand?  Don't care?  You decide.  
1.  Please describe specific experience from your (professional) career that has impacted/influenced you in such a way that it contributes to your qualifications to be a City Council member.
ART DAILY: It's time to put what I've learned during my first term to work.  I believe I bring a balance to the council, which can be a meaningful contribution in a strong-minded community.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: I started my computer business over thirty years ago.  There was no internet.  Computers came with DOS 1 and dual floppy disk drives.  Windows were in your house or car.  Every step of advancement I have adapted to, learned, absorbed and moved forward.  I had to discern what technology to support and how to integrate it to solve the business needs of my clients.  The first step is to identify the problem.  I start with what is the desired outcome.  Then I work through how to get there.  I have had to think outside the box because the box was not yet invented.  The challenges the city of Aspen faces now and in the future require the same rational and logical assessment of problems and solutions.
LEE MULCAHY: My vision of Aspen is a place where its community members still shake hands even if we disagree, of one where artists aren't evicted from their self-built homes and where whistleblowers aren't banned from public lands for passing out a living wage flyer.  I promise to be the voice of the working man, of the community, of freedom and liberty.
ANN MULLINS: The accumulation of business experience (as a landscape architect and urban designer) through upturns and downturns, and the experience and knowledge gained through working on numerous different projects in many different places has affected my role as a council member.
STEVE SKADRON:  I have an MBA, experience in the corporate world, and a successful entrepreneurial record creating a thriving small business. 
SUE TATEM:  I attended CU (biology), Rice U (graduate work), UT Austin (PhD), NIH (postdoctoral fellow), and was a professor of biology at Temple U for 22 years. I have published 4 science books and other nonfiction about Michener. I am a plein air artist with a studio in the Red Brick.  I have experience writing and reviewing grants, administering a laboratory, budgeting and public speaking.
TORRE: I have a broad range of work history here (snowboard instructor, race crew, concierge, retail manager, waiter, bartender, restaurant manager, construction, maintenance, housecleaning, tennis teacher) that has given me a great perspective on the lives of Aspenites and our visitors, and the challenges we face.  I have also learned the business and personal skills from these jobs to understand hard work, team work, economics, decision making, negotiations, collaboration, leadership and other skills that make a good representative.
2.  In your opinion, what is the single most important issue facing the city today? How would you approach dealing with this issue?
ART DAILY: The single most important issue facing our town today has remained unchanged since the mining days - how well do we watch over and take care of one another, and how thoughtfully do we protect and preserve our natural environment.  Let's do all we can to understand and to support the values and principles set forth in the Aspen Area Community Plan - and to improve upon them when feasible.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: Forced to name one thing, I would say sustainability.  What threatens the sustainability of Aspen?  Congestion, traffic, over-development, workforce housing and parking are all issues individually worthy of being the most important issue Aspen faces.  To focus on any one without seeing the connection between them is short-sighted and will produce solutions but not solve problems.  Beware of simple solutions.  The duty of city council is to set policy.  My approach to setting policy will be to view all through the lens of sustainability.  City council must make decisions that will ensure that Aspen will survive and thrive economically, while preserving it as a desired place to live for locals.  My approach will be to solicit divergent voices to fully explore the challenges and possible ways to assuage them.
LEE MULCAHY: The bigger the government, the less the liberty. The growth of the city of Aspen is the single most important issue facing the city. If elected, I would: fire the city manager and pass a city hiring freeze, curb local government's unrestrained growth by killing the "Taj Mahal" office building, and pass a property tax cut.
ANN MULLINS: Climate change and its effects.  Aspen city council must take an active role in protecting our environment and meeting the needs of our people.

STEVE SKADRON:  Aspen is drowning in automobiles. I want to leave the transit landscape forever changedby providing viable alternatives to cars, and building on technologies that are not reliant on more lanes and more parking garages in town.

SUE TATEM:  Transportation in and out of Aspen, difficulties on 82 and parking in the city.  I would attempt to address this by gathering all responsible parties and soliciting suggestions from citizens.
TORRE: The most important issue facing the city is this council election.  We have seen a disconnect most evidenced by the repeated citizen referenda on council decisions.  I was disappointed by the power plant process, the failed lodging incentive package, a land use code rewrite that discourages affordable housing downtown, and the recent dam and reservoir applications.
 3.  There is widespread belief that fraud and abuse are rampant in our subsidized housing program.  Do you see this as a problem?  Do you support an independent and comprehensive audit of the entire APCHA subsidized housing program portfolio that would clearly determine:
a)   What do we have in our inventory?
b)   What is the physical condition of each unit?
c) Who specifically lives there?
d)  Do they comply?
Why or why not?  If yes, will you commit to furthering this as a Top 10 Council Priority for 2017?  If not, why not?
ART DAILY: I'm not part of the "widespread belief that fraud and abuse are rampant in our subsidized housing program," but it may be that I simply don't know enough about it and I definitely want to understand the situation better.  Hence, I do support an independent and comprehensive audit of the program and its portfolio.  It can only serve to make the program more fair, more up to date, and better understood, and I do support making such an audit one of the council's top 10 goals for 2017.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: Workforce housing is perhaps the largest single asset the city and county own.  We paved the way in workforce housing.  It is vitally important that we dedicate our energies to address abuse and optimization in the program. I do support an independent and comprehensive audit of the program.  With information in hand, we can determine to what degree abuse and fraud exist.  Top 10 goal, yes.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, yes and yes.  As mayor I would propose an independent commission to investigate the cronyism and corruption at the Housing Department.
ANN MULLINS: One of the next Top Ten Goals will be a comprehensive review of the Affordable Housing Program to address assets, non-compliance and aging inventory.

STEVE SKADRON: Important topic, but I disagree with the general premise. While there are problems, the belief that there is rampant fraud and abuse is overblown. Yes, I'm willing to look at all of it and make improvements to the program as a Top 10 priority.

SUE TATEM: The suspicion of employee housing was the second most mentioned issue when I was collecting signatures.  Most of the employees are afraid to speak out. Definitely top ten.
TORRE: Yes, any distrust or compliance issues can undermine the effectiveness of our housing program.  An accurate inventory of our housing can only help us plan for future needs, opportunities and adaptability to changing circumstances.
4.  As it currently stands, those who purchase subsidized housing units (categories 1-7) from APCHA have no "skin in the game" because they do not pay the 1.5% Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT).  Recall, the funds raised by the RETT go toward the subsidized housing fund (1%) and the Wheeler Opera House (0.5%).  Given that the average 2016 APCHA-brokered sale was $318,000, (making the hypothetical average RETT contribution from these sales $4770) would you support subjecting all future purchases of subsidized housing to the 1.5% RETT along the lines of "What's good for the goose is good for the gander"?  Why or why not?
ART DAILY: I'm not persuaded as yet that such a requirement would be consistent with the principles of subsidized housing.  We're trying to make this housing as financially accessible as possible to qualified buyers.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: Yes, I think workforce housing purchases should be subject to the RETT.  I think it is fair.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, I would, for the common sense reason you state: "what's good for the goose is good for the gander."  Local government is drunk with power and frankly, out of control.
ANN MULLINS: This question and other specific questions will be better answered after we complete the comprehensive assessment of the housing program.

STEVE SKADRON: No, I don't support AH transactions paying the RETT. It simply makes affordable housing more expensive and places an additional burden on a workforce we are trying house.

SUE TATEM: I don't fully understand the complexity of this one and wondered why the Wheeler is getting any of it.
TORRE: I will be willing to have this conversation if elected.  I do know there are other areas for improvement in the facilitation of buying and selling AH units.  I foresee our housing program landing on the Top 10 goals for this coming year.
5.  There is no Council oversight of actual spending by the city.  In most other cities (and especially given our $100+ million annual budget), there is a Council designee or committee that reviews each "payables" batch with the city finance director (or designee) prior to the issuance of payments.  This would typically be a printout of payables, sorted by size and vendor.  The Council designee or committee would review this list and could ask for backup on any proposed payment to review the details of any transaction to sample city spending and ensure it is in line with Council's budget policy approvals, and as a way to limit wasteful staff-driven discretionary spending.  Would you favor the implementation of such an oversight role?  Why or why not?
ART DAILY: I have no reason to believe that the city is a victim of "wasteful staff-driven discretionary spending."  That being said, I do think the budget process and the council's understanding thereof (and public confidence therein) could benefit from an up-to-date analysis and summary from the city manager's office of council's role in the process.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: Our governmental structure is a strong city manager, weak council. By charter, council directs staff through the city manager. I believe council needs to give the city manager specific expectations and trust him to implement them.  With expectations in place, accountability is possible.  I do not advocate council micro-managing staff.  I would support random audits where wasteful spending is suspected.  If wasteful spending is found, the city manager is responsible.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, transparency and sunshine are the best disinfectant for government policy.  Cronyism and corruption run rampant in our city manager-dominated local government.
ANN MULLINS: Currently city council reviews any expense over $25,000.  And of course, council can review any expenditure at any time.

STEVE SKADRON: Every contract over $25k is reviewed by the city council. This is council oversight of actual spending and I've insisted that this policy be maintained.

SUE TATEM: I would like to have oversight of the spending and might do that or be on the committee myself if I'm elected because I have experience checking on expenditures.
TORRE: I think that budget transparency is a top three goal.  There should be more discussions throughout the year instead of just end-of-year budget sessions.  A citizen budget committee would be a good way to involve the public and get more eyes on the issue.
6.  The current council has approved the potential future construction of large reservoirs in the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys. The necessary final decision would merely take a majority of Council (3 votes) to approve what would be considered an administrative matter.  As such, there is no possible citizen recourse to reverse the decision.  Do you favor a change to the Aspen City Charter that would require a vote of the citizens to approve the construction of a dam or dams in the Castle and/or Maroon Creek valleys, or at the very least, make the decision a legislative one that could be subject to citizen over-ride if desired?  Why or why not?
ART DAILY: For the past 45 years or so, the then-sitting council has supported a continuing effort on the part of the city to maintain diligence for two conditional water storage rights in the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys.  In 2016, council directed staff to implement certain water management measures to improve resiliency against future climate change impacts.  I don't think anyone on the council has any current desire to build the subject dams.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: One of my stated top three goals is to ensure that if a future council approves the construction of a dam on either or both Maroon or Castle Creeks that the citizens have to approve construction via a vote.  I favor changing the Charter to require a dam vote.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, at the very least.  Say "no" to dams at the Maroon Bells.  If you care about conservation, wilderness, healthy rivers or our rural lifestyle, you need look no further than the mayor and the incumbent council's plans to build a pair of 15-story dams in the shadow of the world-famous Maroon Bells as reason to clean out city hall. Get the dam plans off the books.
ANN MULLINS: The Aspen city council has not approved the potential future construction of large reservoirs, but has submitted an application to protect the conditional water rights of the city of Aspen.

STEVE SKADRON:  Wrong. Citizens do have recourse. They can recall or not re-elect a councilmember. Any decision on actual construction of dams requires more than one election cycle.

SUE TATUM: I have not seen the full "use" planned for the reservoirs. Are they to be available for recreation? Will they be drained every year leaving ugly mud? There should be an opportunity for citizen override.
TORRE: Dam No!  Dam Never!
7.  The proposal for Gorsuch Haus, a new hotel at the top of South Aspen Street, is likely to be one of the first matters of business for the new Council.  Do you support this project and what it will bring to the western portal of Aspen Mountain?  Why or why not?
ART DAILY: I've been conflicted from participating in Gorsuch Haus deliberations because of my partnership status un the law firm that represents the applicant.  At the end of 2016 I retired as a partner and if re-elected I plan to consult with the city attorney regarding my ability to participate in Gorsuch Haus matters.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: The latest submission of Gorsuch Haus (GH) is stunningly beautiful.  I think this hotel would be a treasure for Aspen, however issues still remain to be resolved. The challenge of getting people from Dean Street to GH remains unresolved to my satisfaction. The current council gave away a portion of Aspen Street to the approved lodges on the east side of the street.  This short-sighted decision combined with the Dolinsek agreement makes a people mover to the base difficult at best.  Piecemeal decisions do not serve the community well.  An integral solution considers not only the building but also the lift alignment, getting people to GH and the historic character of the area.  If elected, I will work for a complete solution that considers all the above-mentioned factors.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, I do.  The time for Gorsuch Haus has come.
ANN MULLINS: Since this is an active application, I cannot speak specifically about it.

STEVE SKADRON: I support efforts to move the lift the lower, make a great public space and modify the building size.

SUE TATEM: I am not yet familiar with the Gorsuch Haus project enough to comment yet.
TORRE: I am supportive of a new lift and the appropriate services that it can support.  There are still many unanswered questions.  South Aspen Street is undergoing many changes. We need to get all the players in the room together and resolve the vision for this side of the mountain.
8.  Do you support the new Chain Store Regulation ordinance?  Why or why not?  Please describe how you see this impacting opportunities for locals to open downtown businesses, as well as how you see it affecting commercial lease rates.
ART DAILY: The new chain store regulation is modest in its language and in its anticipated impact.  I supported it for the simple reason that I believe it sends a message that Aspen cares about the make-up of its retail environment and that high end exclusivity is not a community objective.  Hopefully it will serve to encourage a more balanced mix of retail uses and will over time improve opportunities for locals to engage in downtown businesses.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: I believe it is symbolic only.  I think it creates a false sense of hope.  Attempts to control the free market largely meet with more unintended consequences than real benefits.  The ordinance attempts to place blame on chain stores for change that some do not want to accept.  The only constant is change.  I see this ordinance doing nothing to decrease rents.  Locals on a shoestring budget will find it very difficult to open businesses in the core, chain store or not.
LEE MULCAHY: No, I do not support it.  Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."  As a libertarian, I believe the less the government interferes in the free market, the better.
ANN MULLINS: I was unable to be at the city council meeting where the final version was reviewed and voted on.  I had questions that would have informed my final vote, some of which were unanswered, so I don't know what my final decision would have been.

STEVE SKADRON: The goals it set out to achieve were meritorious.

SUE TATEM: I would rather have chain stores than empty storefronts.
TORRE: I do support the ordinance, but keep in mind there are other missed opportunities that this council failed to act on that predicated this action.  We still need action on other opportunities for local businesses and diversity support.
9.  Please describe a recent decision by the Mayor that you did not agree with, and why.  (Mayor Skadron, please describe a recent decision that you regret, and why.)
ART DAILY: I supported the One-Roof City Hall solution (the Galena option).  The mayor supported the Three-Roof solution, including continued use of the Armory building.  This was the prevailing solution.  I had a range of reasons for my perspective on the issue, including a significantly lower cost, less construction time and risk, lower traffic and parking impacts, and greater efficiency and effectiveness as a municipal headquarters.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: I did not agree with the mayor placing the chain store issue on the city council agenda.  I question the process the ordinance took getting to council.  It came from a member of the public, not from staff or anyone on council. The proponents said put it on the agenda or we will via a citizen petition. I would have told the proponents to go ahead and get the signatures, stand in the cold and do the work.  This decision by the mayor sets a precedent.
LEE MULCAHY: Wasteful spending and uncontrolled government development.  The mayor's empire building now includes a 45'9" tall "Taj Mahal" city office building. (It's awesome to be the city so you can erect a 17' taller building than anyone else!) Transparency and secret executive sessions.  The cronyism and corruption displayed by the mayor and city manager create much of the divisiveness from people feeling they're completely shut out from the non-transparent process.
ANN MULLINS: I supported the one-roof option for city hall.  The three-roof option was approved instead and the mayor cast one of the supporting votes.

STEVE SKADRON: I regret letting the Powerhouse decision take as long as it did. In retrospect, I would have set a hard deadline sooner, say 3 months.

SUE TATEM: I was very unhappy and blamed the mayor for the fiasco with the Power House.  If the city needs space, they should have kept it to begin with.  The nonprofits competed and then had the rug pulled out from under them for the awful idea of a beer garden.
TORRE: I disagreed with the approval of the new city hall on Rio Grande.  I thought that the mayor and council members should have defined the office and space allocations better and reinforced that the mayor's office and managers should remain in the Armory building that currently houses them.
10.            Please evaluate the current City Council's job of holding the city manager accountable for running the city, given the numerous scandals (parking, hydro plant, fiscal irresponsibility, lack of transparency, subsidized housing favoritism and abuse, etc.) that keep occurring on his watch.  He has just completed Year 7 of his 10-year, $170K+/year contract.  In your opinion, can anything Barwick has done be considered "gross negligence" or "malfeasance"?  How can Council improve in its duty to supervise the city manager?  What steps should the new Council take in the next 2 years to prepare for replacing the city manager in 2020 when his contract is up or conducting the proper public review and evaluation for offering him a new contract?
ART DAILY:  I believe Steve Barwick does a good job for the community in his role as city manager.  He receives periodic reviews from city council, including most recently in January of this year.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: The city manager must be given expectations.  Without these, the city manager cannot really be held accountable.  I met with the mayor 2.5 years ago and asked city council to put these in place.  His reply was that nobody had ever done that.  It needs to be done. I do not believe in witch hunts but I do believe in accountability.  If elected to city council I will do everything in my power to put expectations in place.
LEE MULCAHY: Yes, council should put the city manager's office "on notice."  If elected, I would explore steps on reducing the city manager's power.
ANN MULLINS: The health of the city is a reflection of its council and city manager, and the council continually judges the effectiveness of the city manager in maintaining the well-being of the city.

STEVE SKADRON: The premise of the question is false and unfair. Council evaluates the city manager appropriately. We think he does an excellent job. Consistency at the city manager's position is a challenge for many cities. We're fortunate to have a qualified, hard working, professional serving the Aspen's interests.

SUE TATEM: I am supposed to meet with the city manager and have not yet done so.
TORRE: I think there is a lack of accountability on our current council.  We need a better system of communication and oversight on the managers' offices. I look forward to working with council and staff to mend the broken chain of responsibility.
11.            With the abundance of marijuana shops and their significant financial impacts on the local commercial real estate landscape as well as the city's sales tax revenue, which of the existing "pot shops" should be held up as the gold standard for future pot shops in town?  (I asked this question to gauge the knowledge, experience and exposure of the candidates to the burgeoning "pot" industry in Aspen.)
ART DAILY: While I wish I could say otherwise, I'm simply not in a position to judge which of the existing pot shops in town meet the "gold standard" for future pot operations.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: I am not an expert on pot shops.  I do however know that they are closely regulated.  I did discuss pot shops with the chief of police.  Based on that, I feel comfortable that pot shops are safe and that is my main concern.
LEE MULCAHY: Honestly, I don't know.  But my most important concern is that we as a community discourage and make it very difficult for young people to access cannabis.  The problem for tourists is the prohibitions from smoking cannabis in public or in local accommodations.  If elected, I would support legalization of cannabis clubs.
ANN MULLINS: Currently there are seven shops in town and one more approved, but not open yet.  They are all strictly regulated and all compliant with the city ordinance.

STEVE SKADRON: Generally, all shops have met the letter of the law and have been good corporate citizens.

SUE TATEM: I did not vote for marijuana legalization nor have I ever been in any pot shop.
TORRE: I have not done a shop-by-shop comparison.  I do support the valley wide organization - Valley Marijuana Council - and their initiatives for safe, educational, informed pot sales.
12.            Please describe your latest and greatest experience in the past 12 months at any one of the following local establishments: (I asked this question to understand the experience of the candidates at popular and lively establishments frequented by our tourist guests as a gauge of how they relate to contemporary Aspen visitors.)
  • Ajax Tavern
  • Bootsy Bellows
  • Belly Up
  • Cloud 9
  • Cache Cache
  • Matsuhisa
  • Caribou Club
  • Campo De Fiori
ART DAILY: Matsuhisa is my son Rider's favorite restaurant in town.  He loves the sushi.  Some of my own most memorable experiences took place in the Pub and similar outlets, all long gone.
WARD HAUENSTEIN: I really enjoy people in an atmosphere conducive to conversation, so I would say the greatest experience at the listed spots was a dinner with my wife and three other people at Cache Cache.  After involvement in one of the issues I was deeply engaged in, I became estranged from a friend of 30 years.  At this dinner we started talking again.  In a way it was a therapy session with great food.  I believe people should be able to disagree and still be friends.
LEE MULCAHY: Bootsy Bellows - Fantastic. Went to an African fundraiser - always a blast.  Belly Up - Attended several fundraisers, reasonable prices at the bar and great service!  Cache Cache - love the bar menu and the atmosphere, a lot of the servers are longtime friends.  Caribou Club - great music.
ANN MULLINS: Belly Up - Clint Black concert a few years ago.

STEVE SKADRON: Cloud 9 for a birthday party. Yep, I danced on chairs and was sprayed with champagne. But I kept my clothes on.

SUE TATEM: I have not been in any of the establishments in the last 12 months, though I did dine in some of them in years past.  I am sorry to lose Little Annie's, the Wienerstube, McDonald's and the Main Street Bakery.
TORRE: Ajax Tavern - I had a great late lunch with friends on the deck after skiing.  Bootsy Bellows - Snoop Dog just came through for what seemed like 3 days.  Belly Up - the Aspen Cares benefit.  Cloud 9 - A quick beer and lunch on the deck, and back to the lifts!  Cache Cache - Yum! I have cut down from almost once a week to once a month. Campo De Fiori - Adam's birthday, details not available.


SKADRON: Steve and I don't agree on much.  Whether it's his unabashed support for city manager Steve Barwick who effectively leads him and the current council around by their noses, past advocacy for the hydro plant (which I always fear might again rear its ugly head), anti-car zealotry, lack of understanding of (and support for) the issue of dams of Castle and Maroon Creeks, lack of confident leadership, closed mind and inability to even contemplate the other side, "godfather" role in the failed "brewery at the Old Power House" decision and eventual retraction, and recent Land Use Code re-write that courts the Law of Unintended Consequences with VIP tickets to Aspen's hospitality tent, simply put, we see the governance of Aspen through very different lenses.
A walking contradiction, Steve, as echoed in his campaign materials, espouses an improvement to our subsidized housing program with better management and controls, yet his answers to the questionnaire illustrate his lack of acknowledgment and acceptance of the very real problems that exist.  He talks a lot about vitality and small town character, yet supports ardent no growth legislation that only serves to further restrict development and drive costs (of everything) upward, not the least of which are barriers to entry for locally serving (and owned) small businesses.  Steve's desire for "a healthy resort-community balance" prioritizes an enormous new city hall development higher than a well-founded vision for the future of the western portal of Aspen Mountain.  In other words, none of it makes basic common sense.
As consolation (because his third term is all but assured), Steve has been far more of a gentleman than his predecessor, Mick Ireland.  We often share a laugh on the Hunter Creek bus which we both take to the lifts.  While set in his ways and rarely open to new ideas, at least he's not a flat out jerk about it.
ART:  Thanks for your service, Art, but it's time to go.  This well-known and well-respected local attorney with a compelling personal story was elected to council four years ago by employing a strategy of minimal campaigning and guarded public responses.  It should then come as no surprise that Art kept his viewpoints to himself in order to get elected, and today, his political gestalt remains a mystery.  He never brought forth new ideas nor legislation, and rarely coughed out a remark. He is also well known for never responding to emails.  Art's palpable disinterest for his role was astonishing to witness, but not nearly as astonishing as his unexpected decision to run for re-election. Art is a big City Manager fan, clueless about the chain store regulation impacts, and, being a lawyer, it's remarkable his lack of understanding of the whole Castle/Maroon Creek "dam" issue.**
ANN:  Thanks, Ann, for your service.  Now it's someone else's turn. Like Art, Ann favors a decision solely by council on the dams** matter, illustrative of a blindness to all pursuits seemingly environmental and complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand.  The former Historic Preservation Commission chair represents a "same old, same old" ideology and "bring back the quiet years" constituency that do not accurately represent the evolving needs and values of our community.
** Dams: The three incumbents just don't get it.  By deciding to "maintain the conditional rights" to build the dams, the city has filed papers with the state representing its intent to build the dams.  But politically (and in the questionnaire), Steve, Ann and Art are less emphatic about building them.  That's not the point.  LEGALLY, to maintain the right to build the dams you must intend to build them.  You told the state you do intend to, but you told voters the opposite.  So, which is it?  FISCALLY, this puts the city in the position to defend itself against no less than 10 entities that are challenging the city's intent - because one does not exist.  We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum that are going to be spent cleaning up this mess.  And these three don't even understand what it is they agreed on.  Good grief!
I had originally planned to suggest you check the "use by" date on Torre, who has twice served on city council in the past.  I had planned to point out, "Expired."  And while I have strategically supported Torre in the past (as a potential foil to Mick when he attempted a comeback in 2015), I viewed his current candidacy, in short, as one word, just like his name: NO.  But alas, context is everything.  We don't agree on much.  Never did.  But given the competitive set and my hopes of defeating both council incumbents, Torre just may be the man to watch.  I still advocate a "bullet vote" for Ward to get him in with the first ballot, but if Torre advances to the run-off, I promise a hard look at how his past decisions and vision for Aspen's future might just work for us.  Stay tuned.
I certainly don't dislike Lee.  But I cannot support his candidacy.  We all make decisions in this world and fall on the swords of our choosing.  Lee has his reasons for taking on SkiCo, the Aspen Art Museum and the Housing Authority, and whether or not you believe him or support him or avoid him, he feels aggrieved and has sought remedy in both the court of public opinion as well as the courthouse.  He'll fill your inbox with his cases and reasons for fighting for what he feels is his, but unfortunately it's not just the facts that matter, tactics do too.  His troubles with each of the aforementioned entities are now in the courts, and I only wish that each grievance had been addressed differently.  Lee is nothing if not committed, and has thrown his hat into many rings beyond just these local "fights": school board, state office, and now the mayoral race.  It's a shame that so many past controversies and transgressions will likely forever color his name, but I am grateful for his interest in and thoughts on local matters, and willingness to try to make a difference.  He has some very good ideas.  I've told Lee that a little contrition can go a long way.  And I hope that somehow he and his adversaries can come to agreements where the vitriol ends and life in Aspen for Lee can resume anew.  His would be a valuable voice in the public square, but unfortunately today it is still distorted by the chaos that surrounds him.
With an interesting and diverse background, Sue would certainly bring a new perspective to council, however, she comes across as woefully uninformed on local issues.  The Red Ant likes to encourage people to become civically involved and hopes that Sue pursues a volunteer commission post in the near future.  There is a lot to be said for enthusiasm, so it would be terrific for an aspiring elected representative to dive in and gain local political experience this way.  Sue, I hope we haven't heard the last from you.
All hat, no cattle. There is no lack of charm, energy and enthusiasm from the current P&Z chairman and joiner of numerous community organizations primarily targeted to Aspen's millennial constituency (See Issue #129) who vows to "rebuild trust in government" and "create a more livable Aspen."  I recently spent an hour with him.  Questioned about the nature of the "distrust" and specifics on his "livability" concerns, and pressed to describe detailed ideas for real-world solutions, the candidate was vague - and intentionally so. Instead, I got a host of flowery platitudes and a glittery view of utopian Aspen from 20,000'.  There are large doses of either naivety or intent to manipulate.  A self-described "community builder" and "connector," Skippy has a proven record of gathering folks together.  To what end, I am still not entirely sure, and I worry A LOT about form over function.  I am troubled by his idealistic sense of how the world works. 
"Professionally," Skippy is the creative director of Aspen Entrepreneurs, a newly-formed non-profit that seeks to educate and support entrepreneurs and local businesses.  Sounds noble enough, so imagine my astonishment at the group's vision of Aspen as "a shared city, a place with thriving, vibrant, profitable local businesses, where we treat each other as family, invest in one another, live the Aspen Idea, and prioritize health and happiness.  We believe in inclusion, collaboration, big hugs, #givefirst, open doors, long hikes and powder days, because we know it makes us better, stronger, healthier and more profitable." WHAT?!? REALLY?!?  I laughed out loud. Furthermore, I just can't sign on to his belief that "direct democracy doesn't work" and "the whole concept of democracy is in question." (It's actually rather shocking coming from someone who is running for a democratically elected office!!  And it calls into question not democracy, rather the candidate's intentions.)
Skippy no doubt loves Aspen, and really wants us to become a more integrated and diverse community.  He's not at all opposed to the government's role as social engineer, as long as it stems from a diverse mix of people coming together, discussing, interacting and determining the make-up of the community we want to be and what that would take ("actionable goals"), then deciding if and how we make that happen - the classic utopian myth that community is synonymous with consensus (it is not).  Personally, I'm much more concerned with tangible hot-button issues on planet earth, such as the Gorsuch Haus debate - arguably the most important issue facing a new council in the immediate term, and one that, incidentally, Skippy's current role on P&Z precludes him from participating in. 
Skippy's flamboyant rhetoric is FAR too "kumbaya" for a town of 6000 with pressing development, traffic and housing issues, not to mention an annual budget surpassing $100 million.  Besides, the social engineering focus makes me nauseous. But, there is much to be said for the personal brand Skippy has successfully built for himself, ironically without saying much at all.
But, again, by opting not to submit his answers to The Red Ant's candidate questionnaire, you know that Skippy does not want your vote. Based on this alone, do him - and the city of Aspen - a favor: Don't even think about voting for Skippy!

ISSUE #132: Spring 2017 InformANT  3/22/2017

"I always believe that ultimately, if people are paying attention, then we get good government and good leadership.  And when we get lazy, as a democracy, and civically start taking shortcuts, then it results in bad government and politics."  
     -- Barack Obama, 2006
Many years ago, as an incentive to encourage voters to support a sales tax referendum, the City of Aspen created the Food Tax Refund.  Its intent is to partially reimburse voters for the approximate amount of sales tax that they would pay annually on grocery purchases due to the imposition of a 1% city sales tax.  The refund is $50 per person per year.

Applicants are required to be a registered voter in the City of Aspen to qualify.  If you are not currently a registered voter, The Red Ant and the city recommend you register to avoid any issues in the future.  (Any resident who is barred from registering to vote due to non-citizenship or due to a felony conviction shall provide alternative proof of residency as required by the finance director.  Questions: 970-920-5040.)

HERE's the form.  Turn it in by April 17 and get your $50!

This spring's May 2 Aspen General Election promises to be a snoozer of epic proportions. We'll be voting for mayor and two city council seats in a mail-ballot election.  In my humble opinion, the choices are, with one exception, nothing short of abysmal, but more on that later.  Ballots will be mailed out on April 10.  To check your mailing address or to register to vote, go to:

As uninspiring and seemingly unimportant as this election may appear, I still implore you to vote.  I expect voter turnout to be beyond low this cycle, which only makes your vote more impactful.  But fear not -- as you have come to expect, The Red Ant will have an election issue in your inbox around April 10 with everything you need to cast an informed ballot!  Don't even think about voting before reading the election issue!!

Additionally, in-person early voting will begin in the Aspen City Clerk's office on April 17 and will continue until May 1, 8am - 5pm, Monday through Friday.  There will also be Saturday early voting on April 29 from 9a - 2p.  If you will be out of town or out of the country, you may request an Absentee Ballot or Special Absentee Ballot Request Form and return it to the city clerk before April 28.  For more info, call: 970-429-2687.

I wrote about this folly in January (see issue #130 HERE).  In short, an altruistic citizen who thinks that town is being over-run with formula retail stores was successful in his push to initiate an ordinance and pass regulations that enable the city government to block the opening of new chain stores in all future development.  Council unanimously approved the unusual measure, saying that "it sends an important signal about the value Aspen places on uniqueness and small town character."  Formula retail is thus defined as a purveyor with 11 or more stores in the U.S. with standardized characteristics, including product line and trademarks.  

The chain store opposition group set the wheels in motion with a half-baked walking tour of town where they counted "chain stores" and came up with the figure of 60%, as in 60% of Aspen's retail was chain stores, and they declared an emergency! Well, not so fast.  Fake news.  It turned out, with a proper count the number was closer to 30%, and when chains with fewer than 11 stores were removed from the list, the number was closer to 26%.  The Red Ant says that's actually a really nice mix -- so what's the problem?!?!

Council buckled.  Notably, however, in the end, the new restrictions apply solely to development that has yet to be proposed - all existing buildings and others already in the pipeline are exempt.  Demolition or expansion (over 500 sf) would render previous exemptions null and void.  What the regulations' outspoken supporters (think 1980s-era failed "fur ban" mayor Bill Stirling) neglect to acknowledge are those pesky laws of unintended consequences!  Think about the inherent creation of an uneven playing field:  some landlords can now accept (chain store) tenants that their neighbors cannot.  Rumors of discrimination lawsuits are rampant (The Red Ant says, "Bring 'em!"), especially when potential tenants are subject to review by a citizen board, likely Planning & Zoning (think "retail death panels"). Besides, Aspen is already one of the most expensive places to develop real estate in the country, owing to the legion of sundry city regulations and mitigation fees.  Watch prices go up.

The biggest joke of the new ordinance is that it originated with the misguided sentiment that real estate has gotten so expensive in the downtown core that Aspen's younger set cannot get a toe-hold for their recycled water bottle businesses and kite shops (read: really bad business ideas).  Well, anyone with a modicum of business acumen recognizes what will really happen now:  the new restrictions will only ensure that commercial rental rates will remain high (and will likely increase further - think about that pesky dynamic between supply and demand).  Furthermore, this year marks the end of long Aspen runs by chain stores Burberry and McDonald's, and last fall Fendi made a corporate decision to close. The widespread but unsubstantiated belief that ALL chain stores in Aspen happily operate at a loss for the long term is clearly unfounded. And there are many that do very, very well here!  Besides, did anyone ever stop to consider the high quality local jobs (year-round pay, good benefits and paid vacation) tied to formula retailers?  Nope.

But councilman Adam Frisch did indeed acknowledge what I've been saying all along.  He does not think the (chain store regulation) ordinance will make it any easier for the whiny millennials (see Issue #129) to be able to afford leases on downtown commercial space.  Ya think?!?  He then asked the million dollar question, "Is Aspen great because of or in spite of its being 'one of the least free-market, most socially engineered places in the country?'"  I could barf.  (Sadly, I don't think his question was rhetorical.)

Look for the fallout ... Don't worry, it's coming and I'll be sure to keep you posted.

For years, The Red Ant has been writing about widespread abuse and fraud in our local subsidized housing program.  And for years, I have been advocating for a thorough and independent program audit, if for no other reason than to clarify a few key points:
  • What EXACTLY do we have in our inventory?  How many units, how many bedrooms, where?
  • What is the physical condition of these units?
  • Who SPECIFICALLY is living there?
  • Do they qualify?  Are they in compliance?
You'd think I was ordering people into the streets - guilty until proven innocent - when all I've been asking for is an accounting.  If there is no "there" there, then the audit will bear that out.  But in the meantime, just ask anyone and they'll tell you a story about their friend, their neighbor, the Airbnb rentals, etc.  Fraud is rampant. 

Aspen Times columnist Glenn Beaton regularly writes on the subject of abuse in the housing program.  HERE is a recent piece.  He sees what I do, despite the bureaucrats' aversion to even looking into it, and recently the CBS affiliate in Denver took an interest.  HERE is their television report.  (Apologies for the 15-second advertisement at the beginning....) 

In short, the piece highlights the widespread corruption in our housing program and especially the fact that our local leaders, elected and hired, simply do not care.  Several readers of The Red Ant saw the piece and have been in touch - they know how I feel about fraud in our subsidized housing program.  Here is one of the letters I received:

"Hi Elizabeth, They have finally been exposed.  The city council should resign, Barwick should be fired as well as the people who run the program.  The program should be terminated.  Those cheaters should have to disgorge rental income and be removed from the program, and the city attorney has an obligation to prosecute those who criminalize this perk.  This is the Aspen 'buddy system' lapsing into larceny.  Big surprise - everyone knows this was going on and our public servants 'winked' and went skiing.  Shameful."

For the most part, I agree.  The city manager should absolutely be fired.  But that takes a vote of 3 of 5 on council and I can only think of one who has the guts to do the right thing here.  Ann Mullins and Art Daily, the two council members up for re-election in May, are unwilling.  The mayor, also up for re-election, is also unwilling.  In my opinion, their unwillingness to enforce the rules and oversee the city manager as their employee signals their acceptance of this abuse.

The solution should be simple enough.  Change the deed restrictions on our entire subsidized housing portfolio to include the defined penalty requiring sale of the property and prohibition from participating in the subsidized housing program if the owner is found to be in any kind of violation.  Period.  Subsidized housing is a privilege, not a right.  With enforcement comes compliance.  

As for the future of the housing program, I am, however, cautiously optimistic.  In 2015, a new director (with a masters degree in public administration) was hired.  I have a huge amount of respect for Michael Kosdrosky who has been tireless in his quest to upgrade the system and bring a semblance of order to 30 years' worth of chaos.  He swims upstream every day against the status quo, but is currently working to convert a paper-based system to a database because, obviously, the management of 3000 units is not practical with a paper-based system.  Amazing that in 2017 this isn't a given?!?!  He also sees the immense value in properly managing this incomparable community asset.  

But until Kosdrosky is given the power to bring the housing program to heel, the fraud and abuse, so ingrained in its culture, will continue, unabated, because no one on council or at the top of the city hall food chain has the cajones to acknowledge the problem, yet alone straighten it out.

Told ya so.  And don't think for a minute that I am not going to try to make this an election issue.

Following a well-attended public hearing in February (I wrote about it HERE), the developers of Gorsuch Haus took the community and council feedback to heart. The pushback on their planned request for re-zoning from "conservation" to "SKI" (which would have provided greater flexibility with mass and scale) will likely now become a request for the parcel to become a lodging district.  This change, plus a redesign that lowers the height and includes other adjustments including a more "open" turn-around/drop-off area at the top of South Aspen Street, have been incorporated in time for another public hearing on March 27.  Check out the Gorsuch Haus WEBSITE to see the latest renderings.

The changes to the project are noteworthy for many reasons.  First and foremost, they reiterate the commitment by the local development team to listen to community feedback.  The fear (misplaced in my opinion, but I digress) that the access to the new 1A lift was seen to be "too private" led to a reconfiguration that makes the new access FAR more publicly accessible (both physically and visually) than the Silver Queen Gondola at Little Nell.  Furthermore, council admitted that they want the project to work, but did not appreciate the mass and scale.  This round, the height is reduced from 48' to 36-40'.  And, keeping in mind that the community development department supports lodging in this location, once council agreed with this sentiment, it was the right time to make the bold changes necessary for approval.  The upcoming public hearing will bear witness to whether or not this project is ready for the formal application/approval process.  Let's hope so.  

And here's yet another reason why...

As Aspen basks in the afterglow of a wildly successful week of hosting the FIS World Cup Finals, reality hit like a blowtorch.  The skiers, the fans, the coaches, FIS - in other words, everybody - were beyond impressed with the event.  It was nothing short of world class.  But then FIS, the governing body of the sport, spoke in no uncertain terms.  The FIS would love to return to Aspen, but not until there is a replacement for Lift 1A.  This is nothing new, and no surprise to anyone who has been following.  In fact, Aspen came thiiiis close to losing last week's prestigious event because of the old lift.  Thankfully we didn't, but for now, we're not on the World Cup schedule for 2017-2018.  Killington took over our women's technical events in November 2016 and hosted 30,000 spectators. Squaw Valley wowed with 20,000 spectators the week before the finals in Aspen.  As more domestic competitor resorts jump on the World Cup bandwagon and Aspen sits idle with its outdated Lift 1A and "third world" atmosphere in the surrounding neighborhood, World Cup ski racing will stay away.

The timing is right.  Today.  Citizens and neighbors just experienced what true vibrancy and excitement are like on the west side of Ajax.  With the approval of Gorsuch Haus, SkiCo has committed to replacing the old lift and in so doing, preserving the legacy of world class ski racing in Aspen for generations to come.  It's pretty simple.  As the leader of FIS said, "The appetite is there to come to Aspen, no question.  The question is whether the appetite is there in Aspen for World Cup racing to come."  And notably, SkiCo, which has been measured in its support for Gorsuch Haus, stepped up.  John Rigney, VP Sales and Events (and the architect of Aspen's fabulous show) told the Aspen Daily News, "I completely understand the desire to upgrade the west side of Aspen Mountain and South Aspen Street. It needs a facelift, and we'd like to see an upgrade, for sure."  Let's get this done.

Aspen Daily News columnist Paul Menter agrees.  HERE is his column which ran today.  (Great minds think alike!)

Be there at council on March 27.  Your comments definitely matter.

Instead of focusing on important things like providing safe bicycle routes to schools and implementing effective "wayfinding" signage, Aspen's Open Space and Trails (AOST) commission is charging ahead with plans to radically alter automobile traffic patterns in town.  

Using data from about 89 users of the city's subsidized We-Cycle bike sharing program (not the 6800 citizens who live here nor the 2500 youth who attend school here), AOST is planning to PERMANENTLY close off Hallam or Francis Street throughout the west end and make it into a dedicated bike/pedestrian way like Hopkins Street on the south side of Main.  Think about it, without some cars cutting through the west end and until there is some widespread acceptance and adoption of electric cars, we will soon have FAR MORE traffic and carbon emissions from cars stuck solely on Main Street.  Cyclists and pedestrians will never be as safe as they are on Hopkins because there is a cross street at every block, many with poor visibility.

In a town of 3.3 square miles, we already have 32 trails.  We should be focused on getting cyclists off our busy roads and onto the bike path across the Marolt Open Space and onto Hopkins.  One dedicated bike boulevard more than addresses the needs of a town of our size!!

Known for its lack of public engagement and little transparency, AOST has long collaborated in a vacuum with city staff to marginalize drivers while prioritizing bike lanes and closed roads for a very small population of bike riders. Several in the community have thankfully been tracking this nefarious bunch, trying to ascertain just who it is in city hall that authorizes the costly expenditures and approvals associated with these aggressive programs. By law it should be council. Compliance with council's budgetary approval and oversight falls to the city manager. Reporting to council on the city's financial activity is the fiduciary duty of the finance director.  Unfortunately, in Aspen, there is no council oversight of actual spending, just policy, which gives the city manager and his staff unchecked flexibility to spend public dollars as they see fit.  And when city staff's goals align with an opaque special interest board that thinks that the desires of not even 100 cyclists to go the shortest possible distance from the ABC to downtown should supersede the interests and needs of the entire community, we are really in trouble.

My guess is that the permanent Francis or Hallam Street closure will occur this spring.  Don't expect to hear much about it, that is, until you get a ticket.  I'll let you know what I know when I know it.

A long overdue "THANK YOU" to my friends at Aspen Sojourner magazine.  Imagine my surprise to be named as one of "The Aspen Power 50:  Who really runs this town?  Our list of top decision-makers who wield the most influence over local living."  Thank you for the recognition and honor.  Read it HERE.