Archived Ants
Monday
Oct082018

ISSUE #142: ImportANT 2018 Election Info  9/17/18

"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

                               -- Isaac Asimov

 

As a matter of housekeeping, The Red Ant is happy to keep you apprised of the facts pertaining to the 2018 General Election on Tuesday, November 6.
 
Go to www.PitkinVotes.com  This website will enable you to check/update your voter registration.  You can also designate a "ballot mailing address" if you won't be home to receive your ballot when it is sent out on October 15. (The post office will not forward your ballot.) 

 

And overseas voters - your ballots go out on September 22.  Please wait for The Red Ant endorsement issue (or contact me) before voting!!
 
October 15 is also the last day to register to vote.
 
If you're keen on voting in person, you can still practice this lost art beginning on October 22.  See the site for details on time and place.
 
Remember, your ballot must be received BY 7PM on election day. And postmarks don't count.
 
Any questions or issues?  Please contact the County Clerk, Janice Vos Caudill, or the election manager, Elizabeth Granado, at 970-920-5180.  Pitkin County has long been known for its helpful election staff who always go to great lengths to help people get their ballots.
 
The Red Ant will be issuing a full election endorsement issue to coincide with ballots being mailed out.  This is for your convenience, however, I encourage you to do your own research on what has shaped up to be a cumbersome ballot.  The Red Ant endorsement issue will explain why I am supporting an issue or not, but I will not be laying out all of the pros and cons.
 
In addition to the standard general election fare (Gubernatorial, House of Representatives), Pitkin County has a bevy of tax measures coming your way, and several CRITICAL elections and measures:
  • BOCC:  November 6 is when we can vote to put Rob Ittner back on the Board of County Commissioners. Please go to www.VoteRobIttner.com and make a donation to his campaign!  HEREis why we need to get him back at the table.  And ONE MORE reason. 
  • County Assessor: With the retirement of longtime assessor Tom Isaac, the position is now up for grabs.  And like a phoenix who rises from the ashes,  Mick Ireland is back, rearing his ugly head.  Desperate for both a paycheck and health insurance, our old nemesis really just wants the power to oversee and control YOUR property tax bill.  And if you don't think he'll make punitive changes, you have a very short memory. (Get refreshed HERE.) Mick has even floated the nefarious idea of raising property taxes on those who are not full-time residents. His campaign slogan? "Let Mick do the Math."  NO THANKS!! Thankfully, a gracious and longtime employee of Isaac's in the assessor's office is running against him.  Deb Bamesberger doesn't have the name recognition that Mick does, but what she does have (experience, ethics, honesty and demeanor) is what we want and need in that critical role.  Besides, her work in the assessor's office has been and will continue to be her job, not a political career.  Please help Deb by donating to her campaign today HERE.  Every little bit helps!  And you don't have to be a resident or registered voter to donate!  Don't just take my word for it - read THIS letter and THIS one too!
We also can look forward to Aspen's Whiny Millennials and their ballot measure to change Aspen's municipal election date to early March (from May).  They say it will enable more of them to vote.  Never mind that Aspen's city clerk is perhaps the most gracious city staffer imaginable, bending over backwards to get ballots to any registered voter, wherever they may be!  It's actually just a ploy to get seasonal employees registered here and enabling THEM to vote.  And it will additionally keep hard-working Aspenites from running for office since campaign season will coincide with high season, when the people we ideally want representing us actually have to work! (Yes, Skippy's mitts are all over this one...)
 
And finally, after all this time, we actually get to vote NO on the Taj Mahal City Hall on Galena Plaza.
 
Please check your voter registration and mailing address today. Your vote REALLY counts in Aspen!  And look for The Red Ant endorsement issue around October 15.

 

P.S. Please contact me for your Sick of Mick sticker!!  (The Red Ant proudly had these made in 2011 when Mick was running for his third term as mayor.  I knew I held on to the extras for a reason!)
Monday
Jul022018

ISSUE #141: ANT ALERT - Taj Mahal City Hall Alternative  6/29/18

"Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage."
                          -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Please plan to attend a special city council meeting this coming Monday, July 2, at 5p in council chambers to state your opinion on the city's acquisition of 517 E. Hopkins Avenue (the old Aspen Daily News building).
 
The Red Ant sees this acquisition as a critical component in preventing the city from condemning the open space at Galena Plaza for its plans to build a 37,500 sf edifice to bureaucracy, once and for all.  (See the history of the Taj Mahal City Hall HERE.) 
 
Thanks to the tireless (and unpaid!!) work of local government watchdogs Toni Kronberg, Steve Goldenberg and Marcia Goshorn, which began in early 2017 with both an abuse of power lawsuit and a referendum petition effort (for the right to vote) to overturn council's land use approvals for the Taj Mahal City Hall, we are now thiiiiis close to actually killing the Taj. 

Kronberg and Goshorn sued the city, citing abuse of council power because the land use approval involves the conversion of open space which must be approved by voters per the city charter (Lawsuit #1). Goldenberg and Goshorn, like so many of us, preferred that the city ask the voters to approve (or disapprove, as the case would likely have been) the land use approvals for the project.  However, fearful of a "no" vote and the ensuing political backlash when they inevitably moved forward anyway, city council - with the exception of Bert Myrin - elected to bypass the voters.  Since there was enormous community support for a vote on these land use approvals, within a remarkable 2.5 day period, 760 petition signatures were collected in opposition to council's decision.   In response to this outcry, the city was quick to deem the petition effort a failure due to "insufficient signatures" and a "missed deadline," however, they were too quick. When challenged in district court (Lawsuit #2), it was determined that the city had erred, and the petitioners prevailed with a procedural victory.  Furthermore, despite the city's request to dismiss it, the abuse of power suit was deemed by the court to have legal standing.  With these rulings, the city had several choices, including putting the issue to a vote (as originally requested), appealing the judge's ruling, or starting over elsewhere.  

The Red Ant is pleased that alternative sites were quickly identified, and thanks to some creative thinking by local developer Mark Hunt, the 517 E. Hopkins parcel was under contract as of June 18.  We are currently in the due diligence period.
 
Here is why this purchase should be approved post haste:
  • Like it or not, more space for city offices is going to be added to what is currently available at the Armory.  That train has left the station.  The only question is where and at what cost.  517 E. Hopkins is a far better option than the Taj Mahal City Hall.
  • Hunt's plans to develop the 517 E. Hopkins parcel for the city contain the potential for unique space elements (see below) that provide:
  •  
    • 517 E. Hopkins                         22,000 sf
    • City Hall (Armory)                   21,000 sf
    • Land Beneath Connor Park      11,500 sf
      • TOTAL                         54,500 sf
  • $23 million is the magic number.  When comparing the 517 E. Hopkins parcel with the planned site for the Taj Mahal on Galena Plaza, $23 million comes up.  But in the case of the Taj, $23 million is only the NEW CONSTRUCTION COST.  $23 million does not include the land value of $7 million.  Whereas, 517 E. Hopkins presents a scrape-and-replace finished construction cost of $13.5 million on top of $9.5 million assessed land value. Total $23 million.
  • Hunt will deliver a finished, two-story city office building, across the street from the current City Hall in the Armory, potentially (but not contingent upon) integrating Connor Park as a public amenity with office space beneath, and connecting 517 to the Armory via a tunnel below Hopkins Ave.
  • Remember, the Taj would be 47' tall on land specifically designated as public open space in 2006.
  • Most notably, the redevelopment at 517 E. Hopkins already has site-specific approval from the City of Aspen, meaning that the shape, style, mass, scale and materials have been approved.  These vested rights are already in place, and that building is going to get built.
  • For our council members who are loathe to weigh what the electorate thinks about the matter when making the decision to purchase (that's you, Steve, Ward, Ann and Adam), rest assured.  The purchase contract is an administrative action, not a legislative one, therefore it prevents a citizens' referendum to force a vote.  In other words, you don't have to worry about a citizens' uproar if you move forward to purchase the 517 E. Hopkins parcel.
  • Besides, Carl Heck likes it, writing to the Aspen Times, "Finally, the new City Hall issue is settled and should make all sides happy! Buying the Daily News building from Mark Hunt solves the problem and eliminates a huge construction project at Galena Plaza. Plus, the future possibility of connecting the building with City Hall and improvements to Connor Park is a great bonus for Aspen."  Indeed.
Let's do this.

Click HERE to see the 517 E. Hopkins parcel's proximity to the Armory, including Hunt's concept.

Of special note: Kronberg, Goldenberg and Goshorn were represented in the two cases by Denver attorney J.D. Porter.  It's such a shame that it takes citizen activism and pricey litigation to reverse council's and the city's tone-deaf and often ill-advised decisions.  But it often does.  To Toni, Steve and Marcia, I salute you.  When you see these three, please thank them.  It is unbelievably hard to fight city hall. But it can be done!  Bravo!!
Sunday
Apr222018

ISSUE #140: Call An AmbulANTs  4/2/2018

"Parties are only bad when a fight breaks out, when men fight over women or vice versa.  Someone takes a fall, an ambulance comes and the police arrive. If you can avoid these things, pretty much all behavior is acceptable. 
"

                          -- Bill Murray

 

 

Heard about the $7.5 million soon-to-be-built "Ambulance Barn" at the hospital?  Me neither, that is, since we approved a mill levy increase for the Aspen Ambulance District (AAD) in 2014.  The Red Ant advocated for this increase as a matter of public safety, especially to serve the needs of our growing (and aging) full- and part-time population.  What I did not advocate for was the AAD to operate in a dark vacuum since then, with little-to-no public outreach and, according to public records, nary a public meeting in the past three years! It's true, the government, including special districts, CAN build for the public without going through the standard reviews and processes, but this one is especially squirrelly.
 
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE ASPEN AMBULANCE DISTRICT (AAD)?
Good question.  The AAD is the provider of ambulance services in Aspen.  It is a stand-alone taxing district within Pitkin County that was formed in 1982 with a mill levy of 0.82.  Over the years, due to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), as property values increased, the mill levy had been reduced to 0.22.  In 2014, voters within the AAD approved a property tax levy of up to 0.501 mills to ensure that AAD's facilities are adequate and that its revenue model can sustain the district beyond 2017.  
 
The AAD district boundaries include Aspen and unincorporated Pitkin County, from Watson Divide up to Aspen, but does not include Snowmass Village, the Snowmass Creek and Capitol Creek valleys, or the Crystal River Valley.  These areas are served by the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District, Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District and the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District, respectively.
 
And governance?  The AAD board is "coincidentally" Pitkin County's Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), who rarely discuss this little-known cash-flowing district.  In fact, two of the 5 commissioners live outside of the AAD boundaries, and should therefore be ineligible to vote on AAD matters if the county's other district board member qualifications are applied. (George Newman lives in Emma and Steve Child lives in Old Snowmass.) And that's not to mention that the BOCC folks are duly elected by citizens inside AND outside of the AAD boundaries, so yes, residents of Redstone and Old Snowmass technically get to vote on AAD representatives.  This group recently approved the issuance of Certificates of Participation (COP) to fund the AAD's proposed $7.3 million facility and a $250,000 new ambulance (recall that COPs do not require public approval) now that the district's new mill levies have kicked in and can service the debt.  This sidestep of the taxpaying public is a problematic practice, most recently seen in the City of Aspen's decision to use COPs to finance the Taj Mahal City Hall instead of going to the voters for bond approval.  It's the old "If you can get your sticky mitts on it, spend it" mentality... yet again.
 
ASPEN AMBULANCE DISTRICT EMPLOYEES
The AAD contracts with Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH), so its 30+/- paramedics and EMTs are hospital employees, despite technically working for an outside entity.  The employees, equipment and responsibilities for the ambulances are "tasked" to the Aspen Valley Hospital district as part of an intergovernmental agreement.  The current ambulance barn is on AVH's property in the County.  The new 11,000+ sf barn will remain there, and the County is planning to name it "The Pitkin County Ambulance Building."  One problem: Pitkin County has nothing to do with ambulances, and the AAD does not serve the entire county.  Not even close.  The AAD boundary is nearly the same as that of the Aspen Fire Protection District (AFPD), served by the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department.  (Sure, Aspen Fire will absolutely assist Snowmass Village or frankly any jurisdiction that requests it under a code of "mutual aid," but these other districts have their own proprietary EMS operations as a first line.)
 
There is obviously a very cozy relationship (more like a tangled braid) between 3 government agencies:  Pitkin County, the Aspen Valley Hospital District and the Aspen Ambulance District.
 
NOTE:  In no way is this analysis any kind of judgment on the many fine professionals who work for the AAD.  We are incredibly fortunate to have such world-class care in our community.  And if you've ever been a "passenger" (as I have), you know just how good these folks truly are.  My beef is specifically with the governance,  the lack of transparency, the lack of fiscal oversight and  perhaps just some plain old archaic thinking.
 
WHAT'S GOING ON?
The AAD is one strange unicorn.  To begin with, 96% of the country (USA, not the county) is served by fire-based Emergency Medical Service (EMS).  This includes our valley:  Snowmass Fire and EMS, Basalt Fire and EMS, Carbondale Fire and EMS, Glenwood Fire and EMS, and Rifle (Colorado River Fire and EMS).  But in Aspen, and Aspen specifically, fire and EMS are two different entities.  
 
It comes down to this: Does AAD really need a new $7+ million facility?  And should this facility be located on the west side of the Castle Creek Bridge at the hospital?  Does this location best serve the needs of our community?  What due diligence was done prior to the approval of this enormous taxpayer-funded expenditure?  Were there other alternatives?
 
The Red Ant has learned that it always helps to follow the money.  AAD has new-found purchasing power after the 2014 mill levy increase.  So much purchasing power, in fact, that the new barn continues to escalate in cost estimates each year, every time it is quietly mentioned, which isn't often.  And with AAD under the purview of AVH, the money owed AAD that is originally billed by AVH stays in the hands of AVH until it is reimbursed.  A slush fund if you will.  And who, especially a hospital, doesn't like a little slush fund?  
 
Pitkin County also sees some slush, as they collect the property taxes in the first place.  Sure, the AAD mills are indeed AAD dollars, but these hit the county coffers first, and are doled out at the discretion of the county administrators.  In the meantime, not at all unlike what the City of Aspen does with the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) revenues, the county can use the cash on hand on a short term basis at its own discretion.  Who would know?  The power of the purse, so to speak.
 
There is also the mysterious question of whether or not Snowmass Village taxpayers are paying for their proprietary Fire/EMS services PLUS paying for the employees of Aspen's Ambulance District.  After all, Snowmass taxpayers pay into the Aspen Valley Hospital district, and Aspen's ambulance employees are paid by AVH.  The accounting is vague at best, so my best guess is that if not the salaries and expenses, it would appear that the benefits for AAD employees  just might be being paid in part by Snowmass Village taxpayers.  That just doesn't seem right.
 
WOULD OUR COMMUNITY BE BETTER SERVED WITH A COMBINED FIRE/EMS DISTRICT?
It is a bit odd that our two entities are not combined, but that's just the way it is.  To The Red Ant, the reason seems like inertia.  The AAD has flown under the radar with an inherently conflicted board structure and little-to-no transparent governance since its inception.  But when it raises its own profile with a $7+ million taxpayer-funded HQ, the yellow warning lights begin flashing.  I'm sure it's convenient and tidy for the BOCC to meet sporadically on AAD business, despite the mill levy funds rolling in.  In fact, the only report I have heard about the BOCC's opinion on advocating for a stronger collaboration between the Aspen Ambulance District and the Aspen Fire Protection District is the overly simplistic question of how the fire district would handle ambulance billing were the two entities to become more closely aligned.  (One word: Software.)
 
But from a logistics standpoint, regardless of whether or not the two entities remain separate, there are some very real public safety considerations.  The concept of "best location" should absolutely drive the decision-making.  Where do the ambulance calls come from?  According to the AAD's call data, it's an even 50/50 split between the city and the county.  And when I say "county," I mean the portion of the county within the Aspen Fire Protection District boundary, not the entirety of Pitkin County.  Frankly, I found this curious.  It just didn't pass the smell test.  And I'm glad I asked further.  Did you know that ALL ski area ambulance pick-ups are "county calls"?  Yes, all of them, even the gondola drop-off driveway on Durant, Lift 1A AND the top of Spring Street between The Little Nell and the (former) Sky Hotel.  These pick-ups are counted as county pick-ups despite being located technically within the city limits.  They're designated "county calls" because ski area injuries occur on the ski areas which are in the county, not the city.  And AAD and the Pitkin County Sheriff consider all ski area emergencies to be in the county's jurisdiction.  So, in other words, the 50/50 count is grossly misleading. In fact, FAR more than 50% of ambulance calls are from what you and I consider to be "town," mere blocks from the Aspen fire station. But soon, all the ambulances will be forever stationed outside of town in the AAD's proprietary new $7+ million "Hilton at the Hospital."  
 
It seems to me that now would be a really good time to evaluate if this is truly the "best location" and get some much-needed public feedback - before the new HQ breaks ground.  The whole thing makes zero sense to me given our notorious traffic choke-point at the S-curves and Castle Creek Bridge, other than that the AAD suddenly now has a fat checkbook so it wants its very own clubhouse.  Besides, in the cozy relationship with AVH, AAD gets the land, and AVH can utilize AAD employees to supplement their workforce in the ER while on AAD duty.  Clearly, at the very least, the AAD needs some grown-up supervision!
 
Another logistic consideration is to avoid what's called "second call failure."  This is when, say, ambulance A is called to the gondola, and then 4 minutes later a second call comes in from elsewhere in the district.  It doesn't happen often, but it can, and given Aspen's ongoing flirtation with the laws of unintended consequences, it will.  Thus, a second ambulance, ambulance B, is always staffed and ready.  Is the best location for either or both ambulances really out at the hospital?
 
Oh, and let's not overlook the complete foolishness of having all the Aspen ambulances stationed out at the hospital.  They'll be sharing the driveway onto Castle Creek Road with AVH, the Health and Human Services building, and NUMEROUS condominiums.  And did I mention that this intersection with Castle Creek Road is mere feet from the insanely dense soon-to-be-built-across-the-street 488 Castle Creek Road subsidized housing project?!  (See Issue #139)  This bend on Castle Creek Road is going to get really ugly, really fast.  Is there a rational mind that thinks this is a good idea, when little-to-no-cost alternatives are available in town and in the western portion of the district, properly spread out to effectively service the population?
 
WHERE DOES THE ASPEN FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT STAND?
Fire stations are inherently located where they are most needed, so when the Aspen Fire Protection District totally rebuilt its downtown fire station for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, it included a bay for 1-2 ambulances as well as bunk rooms for the attendant AAD personnel.  (To this day, the space is underutilized.) 
 
Fire Chief Rick Balentine weighed in last year to Pitkin County leadership with his opinion and those of the Aspen Fire Protection District board on the AAD's plans, including an incredibly generous offer that was ignored by the AAN.  From a "space needs" perspective, the AFPD offered to house ambulances and crews at its existing stations (downtown and at the North 40) at little to no cost, with the goals of 1) enhanced public safety "by facilitating potentially quicker response times in the downtown core and other high density areas within our shared districts," 2) fiduciary responsibility  - "economies of scale to taxpayers," and 3) resource sharing - "integration and better cross-training and response protocols between members of both organizations."   Balentine is confident that "the currently built AFPD stations and crew quarters can adequately meet (AAD's) needs while allowing for future growth and development as both departments continue to evolve."  Furthermore, Balentine  highlighted that the North 40 station served as temporary quarters for AAD during the recent AVH construction.
 
This is not a specific call to combine the two entities, but it is most certainly a responsible call to do the proper due diligence and analysis before the AAD just hauls off and spends millions of taxpayer dollars unnecessarily simply because it can.  Balentine emphasizes "the potential cost savings and enhanced public safety that might be realized through a formulated cooperative resource-sharing plan of both our districts."  (This type of consideration is what happens when a special taxing district such as the AFPD demonstrates leadership and stewardship by meeting monthly and putting public safety at the forefront!)
 
The AAD desperately needs to be separated from the BOCC, obviously.  The question at hand is a good one - would the AAD be better suited under the purview of the AFPD or AVH?  (That is to be determined.) 
 
While a "combination" of the ambulance and fire districts may initially seem to make a lot of sense, there are additional considerations.  Culturally, for example.  The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department has been around since 1881.  That's 137 years.  It has a proud history with proven success, and that's not only in its full-service capabilities: fire suppression and prevention, swift water rescue, wild fire, hazardous materials mitigation, motor vehicle and aircraft accidents, technical rope rescue, as well as emergency medical and other emergencies. It also includes a track record of fiscal restraint and respect for the district's taxpayers.  For example, Aspen has the lowest fire protection property tax mill levy in Colorado, while also protecting well over $20 billion in property.  
 
As a volunteer organization, there is always the concern about becoming or being perceived as a "career" (paid) fire department, clearly not what AVFD would ever want.  But to have ambulances stationed in town at the fire station still makes infinite sense, particularly as it impacts response time.  Could anything be more obvious?
 
From Chief Balentine, there are certainly ways for the two districts to cooperate to better serve our community, even while remaining separate.  The first step is always cooperation.  From there, anything can happen.  The new barn is a huge step in the wrong direction.
 
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE NEW AMBULANCE "BARN" TODAY
In all likelihood, this train has left the station.  The AAD intends to break ground this spring.  But knowledge is power, and given that this project has intentionally been kept on the down-low, The Red Ant is not the only one irritated.  And concerned.  
 
There is an effort underway to Stop This Project.  I hope it can be done so that proper vetting can occur in the light of day.  And that includes new governance of the AAD so that they too conduct open meetings!
 
If you would like to share your opinion, please plan to attend the P&Z meeting on Tuesday, April 3 at 4:30pm in the Sister Cities Room in City Hall.
 
For questions and if you would like to get more involved, click  
 
And as always, feel free to submit your letters to the editors of our local newspapers, THE ASPEN TIMES and the ASPEN DAILY NEWS.
 
NOTE:  At press time, The Red Ant has learned that AAD staff is currently scrambling to "update" its facts and figures.  Clearly, someone is feeling the heat.  Let's turn it up!  

 

 

Thursday
Feb082018

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.)
 
HOW WE GOT HERE
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.
 
THE TAX CREDIT HOAX
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."  
 
FOLLOW THE MONEY
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:
 
Originally
  • 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%.

AHP: STILL MAKING THE BIG BUCKS FOR FAR LESS WORK
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? 
 
COUNCIL DOESN'T GET IT; PUBLICLY DENIES FINANCIAL REALITIES
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!)
 
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
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! 

Thursday
Oct262017

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.
 
THE PARCEL
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.
 
 
THE HISTORY
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.)
 
THE PROPOSAL FOR THE SITE 
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 
UNPRECENDENTED DENSITY
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.
 
OTHER HORRORS
  • 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. 
THE PROJECT NEEDS RELIEF IN ORDER TO BE BUILT
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!
THE INANE RATIONALE
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 hillary.seminick@cityofaspen.com.  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:


IMPORTANT MEETINGS THIS TUESDAY, OCTOBER 24
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.
 
Wednesday
Oct182017

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.  
 
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
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.
 
AN ALARMING TREND OF DECLINING RESULTS
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.
  • ColoradoSchoolGrades.com 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.
TURNOVER AMONG TEACHERS ON THE UPSWING
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.
VOTE FOR NICKELL AND ZIMET
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.
 
WE CAN AND SHOULD DO SO MUCH BETTER!!
It begins with acknowledging that there are problems. Nickell and Zimet have proposed several actionable recommendations to address the specific issues:
  • FOCUS ON TEACHERS
    • 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)
  • FOCUS ON STUDENT OUTCOMES
    • 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
  • FOCUS ON A STRATEGIC PLAN WITH AN ASPIRATIONAL VISION 
    • Raise goals (get back to at least 2010 levels)
    • Define metrics
    • Create a culture of accountability 
DON'T FORGET TO VOTE!!!!
 
X     Jonathan Nickell
                      X     Susan Zimet
 
For additional information:
 
Friday
Jul282017

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

SKIPPY AND TORRE UNITE TO UP-END ASPEN ELECTIONS
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!!
 
THE "#RESIST" SIGN AT 7TH & MAIN SUBSIDIZED HOUSING
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? 
 
BAG TAX UPDATE
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.
 
ASPEN'S WALL:ART MUSEUM FURTHER IMPACTS ITS SURROUNDINGS 
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?
  
 
WARD WATCH: NEW COUNCILMAN OFF TO A SHAKY START
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.
 
COMIN' DOWN THE PIKE: WHAT OUR BUREAUCRATS ARE UP TO
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!!
 
>>>CASTLE CREEK TRAIL
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....
 
>>>MUNICIPAL WATER STORAGE
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. 
Friday
Jun162017

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

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

WARD DEFIES HISTORY AND BEATS TORRE BY 29 VOTES!
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.  

A CONCISE, POPULAR PLATFORM WITH ACTIONABLE GOALS
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.)

TRANSCENDING "THE SOCIAL LASAGNE"
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!!

OLD FASHIONED RETAIL POLITICKING
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.

DATA, SCHMATA
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.

AND A SPECIAL THANKS TO JOAN...
... 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."