Archived Ants
Saturday
Nov012014

ISSUE #109: ANT Alert - Your November 4 Election Primer

  "Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting."      -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

WATCH FOR YOUR MAIL-IN BALLOT

Ballots were sent out yesterday to all registered voters. Give it a day or two, but if you don't receive yours, contact the County Clerk at 970-429-2713. This year, the statewide election will be conducted via mail-in ballots only so be sure that yours is received by the clerk no later than 7pm on Tuesday, November 4.

For more information on the November election, visit www.PitkinVotes.com 

LOCAL RACES

In a break from Aspen tradition, we have very few issues to consider this round. This does not, however, mean that these issues are unimportant! Be sure to vote!!!

We have one competitive race, and that's for County Commissioner, District 1, between the incumbent and BOCC chair Rob Ittner and challenger Patti Clapper, who held the position until she was term-limited out in 2010. District 1 encompasses most of central Aspen, however the election is open to all county voters. This has been a quiet race thus far, in stark contrast to the battle for the seat between Ittner and Jack Johnson four years ago. Key issues have shaped up to primarily be on growth and development (what's new), but there are several other topics that differentiate the candidates.

According to Ittner, "The crucial needs on our agenda include a focus on the airport and developing a facilities plan with the county. The courthouse needs to be restructured as well as the county building. In effect, we run an organization with 250 employees - there's asset management, staff management, and an effort to keep county health insurance costs down. ... So, is there a new agenda? Not exactly."

Alternatively, Clapper sees the county budget as needing to be re-focused on "sustainability." She says, "Things have gotten busier in the valley, business is up, which is a great thing, and we have to make sure that our increased revenues are managed correctly. We need to better fund health and human services and address local mental health issues. We also need to address sustainable agriculture, protect our historic tradition of ranching, and look at the long-term impacts of drought. There's more and more pressure to take care of our watershed."

I have long been a supporter of Ittner's, based on his business and leadership skills. These have enabled him to find a balance when contemplating the complex and often divisive issues that come before the BOCC. He has a proven and successful record of working with his fellow commissioners to find common ground, despite not always agreeing with each of them on every issue. Ittner added, "It's interesting, I can't say that the major issues have changed. We not only have to protect the area from too much growth, but we also have to protect private property rights. ... Again it's a balance."

I also appreciate how he conducts his campaigns, most notably his personal commitment to interfacing with as many constituents as he possibly can (he's everywhere -- you've seen him, rain or shine, out there waving his signs). Sadly, the intentional non-partisan nature of the county commissioners race was recently injected with partisan vitriol by the challenger (read it HERE). It was so very unnecessary in an otherwise far-from-contentious race. It really turned me off.

The Red Ant says, without a doubt, re-elect:

X     Rob Ittner for County Commissioner, District 1

But don't just take my word for it, check out this letter to the editor HERE from a self-proclaimed "liberal democrat" who encourages voters to eschew "labels" and focus specifically on Ittner's very strong record.

Other races for local elected office include those for County Commissioner - District 2, Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder, County Assessor and County Sheriff. None of these races are contested. What a shame. While I fundamentally don't have issues with several of these incumbents, it is always healthy for a democracy to have choices, if for no other reason than basic checks and balances, and to bring critical issues to the fore. In Aspen especially, the entrenched political class has managed to have a lock on several critical positions, year in and year out. Did I say "Rachel Richards"??

The Red Ant says, vote for:

X     Janice K. Vos Caudhill for Clerk and Recorder

X     Tom Isaac for County Assessor

As for "giving" a vote to unopposed incumbents Rachel Richards (County Commissioner, District 2) and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, do what you will. Check the box or leave it blank. Your call.  It won't change the outcome.

PITKIN COUNTY MEASURES

Ballot Issue 1A: Aspen Ambulance District

This measure seeks to increase funding for the Aspen Ambulance District to build a new $5 million ambulance barn and staff headquarters facility and to fund its ongoing operations. The current mill levy for the district (boundaries: Aspen and unincorporated Pitkin County from Watson Divide to Aspen), formed in 1982, is .22. This measure seeks to more than double that to .501. The original 1982 mill levy was .82, but has gradually decreased as property values increased, per state law. The Aspen Ambulance District responded to 1156 calls in 2013.

The Red Ant says this is a very small property tax increase for a very valuable service that saves lives every day. It will fund much needed new equipment; imagine in this wireless era how critical it is that ambulances have real time connectivity to doctors and the ER. This is a matter of public safety.

X     Yes on 1A

Ballot Issue 1B: Citizens Boards Amendment

This question asks whether or not the County Charter be amended to remove the two-year term for members of citizens boards and instead enable the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to establish appropriate term durations for each of the citizen boards.

The Red Ant says this one just makes good administrative sense. There needs to be a balance between citizen participation and institutional memory. In some cases on some boards, the renewal exercise is a waste of time, especially when the county has trouble filling all board positions.

X     Yes on 1B

Ballot Issue 1C: Elimination of "Conflict of Interest Committee"

This question asks whether or not the County Charter be amended to eliminate the Conflict of Interest Committee. (And yes, there is one!)

The Red Ant says get rid of a committee that hardly anyone seems to have heard of that has been in existence for 20 years but has never met. Ideally, the committee would educate elected officials and key employees in spotting potential conflicts of interest and advising people to recuse themselves where appropriate. However, the proactive nature of the county attorney renders this group redundant. As a matter of housekeeping, abolish it.

X     YES on 1C

CITY OF ASPEN MEASURES

Referendum 2A:   Amendment to City Charter to Address a Vacancy in an Elected Office

This question seeks approval to provide the City Council with greater flexibility in filling council vacancies, including a provision to call a special election in the case of deadlock. It will eliminate a coin flip, roll of the dice or other game-of-chance solution to fill a vacancy.

The Red Ant says this is a great step toward improving governance and best practices by city council.

X     Yes on 2A

Referendum 2B: Amendment to City Charter regarding Term Limits

This question would impose term limits for cumulative years of service as a member of council and/or mayor. If approved, it will preclude the possibility of the same individual continuously circulating between the offices of council and mayor, election after election, without limitation.

The Red Ant says yes to term limits!

X     Yes on 2B

JUDGES

As I've said before, DO NOT skip this important part of the ballot, even if you neither know nor care about who they are or how they dispense justice. By not explicitly voting NO on each "shall [judge] be retained" question, you are implicitly voting YES to keep him/her on the bench. Unless you personally know a given judge to be honest and fair (ie. non-activist), vote NO on retention!

The Red Ant says:

Boatright    X     NO

Marquez     X     NO

Fox          X     NO

Loeb         X     NO

Lynch        X     NO

Fernandez-Ely      X     YES

OTHER BALLOT QUESTIONS

The Red Ant is specifically focused on Aspen political issues, however, please feel free to contact me regarding other races and ballot measures. Yes, I have opinions on those too!

IN THE NEXT ISSUE: BACK TO BUSINESS

  • Aspen's "parking gate" scandal is not going away; Barwick in the hot seat
  • How, given the escalating dollar amounts scammed from the parking meters, are parking revenues dramatically UP in 2014?  We're talking WAY UP, like 4 times over last year, and it's only October.  There's something very fishy with parking revenues!       
  • Despite the scandal, the city contemplates raising parking fees
  • The city's proposed 2015 $93.2 million budget includeds significant pay raises for employees     
  • City greenies have not given up on Castle Creek Hydro

 

  

WATCH FOR YOUR MAIL-IN BALLOT

Ballots were sent out yesterday to all registered voters. Give it a day or two, but if you don't receive yours, contact the County Clerk at 970-429-2713. This year, the statewide election will be conducted via mail-in ballots only so be sure that yours is received by the clerk no later than 7pm on Tuesday, November 4.

For more information on the November election, visit www.PitkinVotes.com 

LOCAL RACES

In a break from Aspen tradition, we have very few issues to consider this round. This does not, however, mean that these issues are unimportant! Be sure to vote!!!

We have one competitive race, and that's for County Commissioner, District 1, between the incumbent and BOCC chair Rob Ittner and challenger Patti Clapper, who held the position until she was term-limited out in 2010. District 1 encompasses most of central Aspen, however the election is open to all county voters. This has been a quiet race thus far, in stark contrast to the battle for the seat between Ittner and Jack Johnson four years ago. Key issues have shaped up to primarily be on growth and development (what's new), but there are several other topics that differentiate the candidates.

According to Ittner, "The crucial needs on our agenda include a focus on the airport and developing a facilities plan with the county. The courthouse needs to be restructured as well as the county building. In effect, we run an organization with 250 employees - there's asset management, staff management, and an effort to keep county health insurance costs down. ... So, is there a new agenda? Not exactly."

Alternatively, Clapper sees the county budget as needing to be re-focused on "sustainability." She says, "Things have gotten busier in the valley, business is up, which is a great thing, and we have to make sure that our increased revenues are managed correctly. We need to better fund health and human services and address local mental health issues. We also need to address sustainable agriculture, protect our historic tradition of ranching, and look at the long-term impacts of drought. There's more and more pressure to take care of our watershed."

I have long been a supporter of Ittner's, based on his business and leadership skills. These have enabled him to find a balance when contemplating the complex and often divisive issues that come before the BOCC. He has a proven and successful record of working with his fellow commissioners to find common ground, despite not always agreeing with each of them on every issue. Ittner added, "It's interesting, I can't say that the major issues have changed. We not only have to protect the area from too much growth, but we also have to protect private property rights. ... Again it's a balance."

I also appreciate how he conducts his campaigns, most notably his personal commitment to interfacing with as many constituents as he possibly can (he's everywhere -- you've seen him, rain or shine, out there waving his signs). Sadly, the intentional non-partisan nature of the county commissioners race was recently injected with partisan vitriol by the challenger (read it HERE). It was so very unnecessary in an otherwise far-from-contentious race. It really turned me off.

The Red Ant says, without a doubt, re-elect:

X     Rob Ittner for County Commissioner, District 1

But don't just take my word for it, check out this letter to the editor HERE from a self-proclaimed "liberal democrat" who encourages voters to eschew "labels" and focus specifically on Ittner's very strong record.

Other races for local elected office include those for County Commissioner - District 2, Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder, County Assessor and County Sheriff. None of these races are contested. What a shame. While I fundamentally don't have issues with several of these incumbents, it is always healthy for a democracy to have choices, if for no other reason than basic checks and balances, and to bring critical issues to the fore. In Aspen especially, the entrenched political class has managed to have a lock on several critical positions, year in and year out. Did I say "Rachel Richards"??

The Red Ant says, vote for:

X     Janice K. Vos Caudhill for Clerk and Recorder

X     Tom Isaac for County Assessor

As for "giving" a vote to unopposed incumbents Rachel Richards (County Commissioner, District 2) and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, do what you will. Check the box or leave it blank. Your call.  It won't change the outcome.

PITKIN COUNTY MEASURES

Ballot Issue 1A: Aspen Ambulance District

This measure seeks to increase funding for the Aspen Ambulance District to build a new $5 million ambulance barn and staff headquarters facility and to fund its ongoing operations. The current mill levy for the district (boundaries: Aspen and unincorporated Pitkin County from Watson Divide to Aspen), formed in 1982, is .22. This measure seeks to more than double that to .501. The original 1982 mill levy was .82, but has gradually decreased as property values increased, per state law. The Aspen Ambulance District responded to 1156 calls in 2013.

The Red Ant says this is a very small property tax increase for a very valuable service that saves lives every day. It will fund much needed new equipment; imagine in this wireless era how critical it is that ambulances have real time connectivity to doctors and the ER. This is a matter of public safety.

X     Yes on 1A

Ballot Issue 1B: Citizens Boards Amendment

This question asks whether or not the County Charter be amended to remove the two-year term for members of citizens boards and instead enable the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to establish appropriate term durations for each of the citizen boards.

The Red Ant says this one just makes good administrative sense. There needs to be a balance between citizen participation and institutional memory. In some cases on some boards, the renewal exercise is a waste of time, especially when the county has trouble filling all board positions.

X     Yes on 1B

Ballot Issue 1C: Elimination of "Conflict of Interest Committee"

This question asks whether or not the County Charter be amended to eliminate the Conflict of Interest Committee. (And yes, there is one!)

The Red Ant says get rid of a committee that hardly anyone seems to have heard of that has been in existence for 20 years but has never met. Ideally, the committee would educate elected officials and key employees in spotting potential conflicts of interest and advising people to recuse themselves where appropriate. However, the proactive nature of the county attorney renders this group redundant. As a matter of housekeeping, abolish it.

X     YES on 1C

CITY OF ASPEN MEASURES

Referendum 2A:   Amendment to City Charter to Address a Vacancy in an Elected Office

This question seeks approval to provide the City Council with greater flexibility in filling council vacancies, including a provision to call a special election in the case of deadlock. It will eliminate a coin flip, roll of the dice or other game-of-chance solution to fill a vacancy.

The Red Ant says this is a great step toward improving governance and best practices by city council.

X     Yes on 2A

Referendum 2B: Amendment to City Charter regarding Term Limits

This question would impose term limits for cumulative years of service as a member of council and/or mayor. If approved, it will preclude the possibility of the same individual continuously circulating between the offices of council and mayor, election after election, without limitation.

The Red Ant says yes to term limits!

X     Yes on 2B

JUDGES

As I've said before, DO NOT skip this important part of the ballot, even if you neither know nor care about who they are or how they dispense justice. By not explicitly voting NO on each "shall [judge] be retained" question, you are implicitly voting YES to keep him/her on the bench. Unless you personally know a given judge to be honest and fair (ie. non-activist), vote NO on retention!

The Red Ant says:

Boatright    X     NO

Marquez     X     NO

Fox          X     NO

Loeb         X     NO

Lynch        X     NO

Fernandez-Ely      X     YES

OTHER BALLOT QUESTIONS

The Red Ant is specifically focused on Aspen political issues, however, please feel free to contact me regarding other races and ballot measures. Yes, I have opinions on those too!

IN THE NEXT ISSUE: BACK TO BUSINESS

·         Aspen's "parking gate" scandal is not going away; Barwick in the hot seat

·         How, given the escalating dollar amounts scammed from the parking meters, are parking revenues dramatically UP in 2014?  We're talking WAY UP, like 4 times over last year, and it's only October.  There's something very fishy with parking revenues!

·         Despite the scandal, the city contemplates raising parking fees

·         The city's proposed 2015 $93.2 million budget includes significant pay raises for employees

·         City greenies have not given up on Castle Creek Hydro

 

 

Saturday
Nov012014

ISSUE #108: ANTipathy Abounds - Summer Musings

  "The hardest mistakes to learn from are those that lack consequence."   

   -- Jasper Sole 

Sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective.  Over the course of the summer, I monitored the goings-on in Aspen from my summer house on nANTucket.  I "read" the papers on most days and heard from many of you regularly -- thank you!! I was often entertained (who can believe some of this stuff??), frequently horrified, but more often than not, simply incredulous that this level of buffoonery continues, year-in and year-out, more or less unchecked.

The inmates are clearly running the asylum in the People's Republic of Aspen!

About 18 months ago, it seemed that we might be turning a corner, what with the "new" council and the absence of Mick.  But it was not to be.  At this stage, rumblings about the May 2015 municipal election are already heating up and I can't say I'm surprised.  I am far from impressed with any action by this council aside from the decision to shutter the hydro plant.  Best I can tell, they've become simple pawns, having abdicated their oversight role to our pal Steve Barwick and his roving band of buffoons. The remarkable thing is that they don't even realize it!

In short, here's what I'm talking about:

BIKES AND CARS: DIFFERENT LAWS IN ASPEN
Earlier this summer, council ok'd a change in the law whereby bicyclists no longer have to stop at city stop signs. City staff brought it to council's attention that bikers were ignoring stop signs throughout town anyway so this seemed like a logical way to go. Somehow, the city thinks this will encourage more people to ride bikes in Aspen! The new law of course furthers the city's war on cars. It's all fun and games until someone's kid gets hit. Not if, but when.

THE BAG TAX IS STILL A "FEE" -- FOR NOW

The Colorado Union of Taxpayers' (CUT) 2012 complaint against the city of Aspen argued that its $0.20 per single-use paper grocery bag fee is an unconstitutional tax. When finally heard by 9th Judicial District Court Judge John Neiley, he ruled in the city's favor, when in irrefutable fact the"fee" is not a fee, it is indeed a tax!

  • Aspen's bag "fee" provides no individualized service but chips funds into a bucket for educational purposes aimed at reducing usage of "single use" items.  (A "fee" must specifically benefit the payer of the charge.)      
  • Aspen's bag "fee" is a value-based, rather than cost-based, charge.  (Government charges against the value of privately sold goods are taxes, whereas fees pay for government services provided to those seeking a service.)        
  • Aspen's bag "fee" is a mandatory government charge applied to the cost of privately provided services.  (The very definition of a tax.)      

Besides, and perhaps most notably, despite arguing that the bag tax is a fee, the city does not classify the funds garnered from the bag tax "fee" with other government fees, despite having a detailed "fee" report in its annual budget. Nope. The city spends many pages of its lengthy budget justifying that all fees are collected appropriately, but omits the bag tax "fee" every year. Why? Because it's not a fee.

As usual, the city can do no wrong in the eyes of the district court. The state constitution says that such matters, when close, are to be decided in favor of the taxpayer. Neiley's decision does just the opposite. It seems the judge relied at least in part on the intent of the "fee" to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags. This is an irrelevant legal consideration. The concept of "intent" in this matter pertains to whether the charge is intended to fund an activity that specifically benefits the payer of the charge. That the government imposing the charge doesn't even bother to evaluate the relationship between the charge and the costs of rendering a benefit seems to provide evidence of a lack of intent to connect the charge with the benefit.  But most notably, the judge got it wrong when he misapplied the import of the purpose being to reduce usage.  A general public policy like that is an indicium of a tax, not a fee.  But he (wrongly) said that was indicative of a fee.

Hopefully, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers expected this outcome and will appeal.

A 91-PAGE "LODGING INCENTIVE" PROGRAM?
In an effort to create incentives for the development and re-development of lodge rooms to increase the dwindling bed base in Aspen, city staff prepared a cumbersome 91-page manifesto for council's approval. The 17-step tome presented a 5-year plan that included allowances for 4-story buildings (upon council approval), more free-market residential unit components per project, development fee waivers, fewer subsidized housing requirements and other pro-development perks.  

It is widely acknowledged that we need more tourist accommodations in town. Statistics show that we've lost about 2700 "beds" and 20 small lodges in the past 20 years. SkiCo and ACRA both agree on and espouse the urgency of addressing reinvestment and modernization of our infrastructure. The incentive program narrowly passed council 3-2, only to be reversed shortly thereafter once an opposition group mounted an aggressive petition effort to overturn the ordinance. (Having been integrally involved in a citizen petition effort to nix the hydro plant, I am happy to see that council has learned that the power of the citizenry is indeed something to be reckoned with. However, it is widely known that this particular petition effort employed exaggerated fear-mongering a la "council has approved sky scrapers at the base of Aspen Mountain" in order to garner signatures.)

At this stage, it's back to the drawing board. But the facts remain: we need more beds. The answer? KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. And additionally, the historic hysterics need to kiss The Quiet Years goodbye. A small but angry, aggressive and loud faction of our populace is vehemently opposed to ANY development, especially development that might bring more people to our little town. They could not care less that Aspen is a tourism destination that depends economically on tourism dollars for its very survival. They have their piece of the Aspen pie so to heck with everyone else.

A 91-page ordinance is NOT the answer, but we do need a plan. We've already squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a second base area at Aspen Mountain. That ship has sailed, with Mick at the helm. (Recall how the then-mayor voted for the hotel project as part of a citizen's committee before he voted against it as mayor. It is his legacy.) Luxury townhomes are now pre-sold and slated for development on the 1A side of Ajax, forever ending the possibility of another ski-in, ski-out hotel in that primo location. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. New base areas don't grow on trees. 

Council never seems to get it that city staff works for them, not the other way around. Tell staff what we need and tell them to write it up! No grand manifesto, just a nuts and bolts solution. But make sure it's a solution! Like this:

  • Roll back development fees, but don't give as much opportunity for height variances or free market residential components.  The city does not need the one-time development money; it needs the beds and the sales tax revenue from modern, competitive lodge year-over-year for the next 30 years.    
  • Streamline the EXISTING code.  The solution should be the rule, not an exception in the form of an incentive plan.  (Check around.  Surely there are examples in use in other communities!)       
  • Speed up the review process.  Set timelines where an applicant must be quickly granted a hearing in front of P&Z or council.  Limit the required public hearings to one or two, not an infinite number.  The current open-ended process, used punitively in the past, enables nay-sayers to use the public process to extend the debate and financially bleed applicants.       

THE WHEELER RETT?  THINK $26 MIL IS ENOUGH?
In 1979, Aspen voters approved a real estate transfer tax (RETT) of 1.5%, with funds going to subsidized housing (1%) and the Wheeler Opera House (.5%). The current tax sunsets in 2019 so city officials are FINALLY taking a look at the 35-year haul as it relates to maintaining one of Aspen's jewels into the future. The Wheeler received $3.1 million from the RETT in 2013 on top of a city subsidy for operations of $2.6 million. The current "Wheeler Fund" balance is $26.8 million. This slush fund is a frequent source for the city to dip into to entertain pet projects which in the past have included ridiculous real estate purchases at above-market valuations. Free money.

Some background: An endowment for the Wheeler was created in 2002 with the intent of growing it to $70 million over 17 years and then ending the tax. Then management of the Wheeler changed and operations of the facility began to cost the city more than $1 million more per year. There was no longer sufficient income to build the endowment fund to a level where it would be self-sustaining. Then, in 2008, the endowment was eyed as a source for a massive expansion. Again, looking at the fund as free money! Because the costs at the Wheeler are now so high, the concept of an endowment is no longer financially sustainable (there would need to be about $50 million in the fund to support the Wheeler's required subsidy).

While one would hope that a $26 million fund balance could establish an endowment for the facility, it is not to be. The current management of the Wheeler spends money like drunken sailors and the city continues to subsidize these follies. Yes, there are arguably many other pressing needs for that .5% RETT money. But the city will have to whip the Wheeler management into fiscal shape if we want to re-allocate the RETT funds. It will take voter approval to make such a change. But don't hold out hope that anything will change regarding funds for subsidized housing. It's Aspen! There can never be enough.

CHAIRMAN MAO'S DINER: A BAD IDEA THEN, WORSE NOW
In the earliest days of The Red Ant, I wrote about "Chairman Mao's Diner." Read it HERE. In an extortionist move against the developers of the building that now sits where the Cooper Street Pier once did, the city extracted a concession that an "affordable" restaurant be situated in the new building's basement. The new "people's restaurant" would be required by law to serve meals that are priced within the third lowest of all restaurants in town.

That was 2008. Today, council is all in a bother because the building developers have not yet found some poor sap who is willing to lease this dire space, finish it out (at a cost of about $1 million) so as to physically have a restaurant there, and be willing to serve legally-mandated cheap eats. Who would? It's ludicrous. And another example of the law of unintended consequences coming back to bite the city right you-know-where.

Look how stupid our city bureaucrats are! They don't even understand the most basic concept in private sector economics: supply and demand. When there is a supply of restaurant spaces that are NOT price-regulated by the government, why would there be any demand for the one space that IS price-regulated? It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but economically it just doesn't pencil out. Never did.  Memo to the city: you tried. It didn't work. Give it up. Learn a lesson. Cut your losses. Walk away. It should not be incumbent upon the developer to solve this one. The space is there, as required. You're the ones who put the prohibitive stipulations in place.

ASPEN ART MUSEUM: LOVE IT OR HATE IT, IT'S HERE
No one, local or visitor alike, is without an opinion on this one. But wherever you stand, the reality is that it exists. Let's collectively hope that the cultural offerings of our newest "attraction" bring visitors to Aspen. Never mind they might not be able to find a place to park, the admission is always free. But it's in Aspen's best interest that the AAM succeed. It's also in our best interest that this be the last time something like this gets built under such extenuating circumstances.

If you want the real story on how the AAM came to be, the singular best piece on the subject is by Brent Gardner-Smith, published in the Aspen Daily News this summer. Read it HERE. It is by far the best example of investigative journalism of the year. (And yes, you CAN thank Mick for this too.)

My personal hope is that with all of the new gallery space in its new facility, the AAM will continue its support of the Roaring Fork Open, showcasing the works of local artists, as well as bring back the ever-popular Roaring Fork Valley Kids Show. A little goodwill never hurt.

On the "hot plate" and currently in the news....

HOUSING MITIGATION SURVEY
If you own property in Aspen, you've received THIS survey. It's the latest expenditure ($33K) by the city to "involve" property owners in pending punitive legislation to increase the costs of development so as to further pad the coffers for yet more subsidized housing. The current housing "mitigation" fee is $76 per square foot. The city certainly can't build subsidized housing for this so they think the number should be higher. As in A LOT higher - like $200+ per square foot. Of course they overlook the fact that a private property owner has already paid 1.5% of the purchase in RETT, with 1% already going to housing! And, there are evil undercurrents to charge second homeowners a different (and ostensibly even higher) rate!

In simple terms, picture a 20x20 addition to a house. 400 square feet. Currently, it would cost $30,400 in housing mitigation before you even buy a nail. The city wants this to go up to at least $80,000. Their thinking is that the larger your house is, the more local employees you need, measured in what they call "full-time equivalents" (FTE). So, the survey wants to know how many people you employ and how often. Clearly, that 400 sf addition creates some sort of dramatic need for more people to serve you that the community must provide housing for at a subsidized rate!

Of course, neglected in this model is the fact that you might not generate ANY new employee needs with your construction. And even if you did, perhaps it would be much needed and highly desired work for the many workers already living in subsidized housing who are under-employed and would welcome new clients! But that doesn't fit their narrative, does it? They want you to brag and tell them that you employ a small army. This will justify their flawed rationale for a huge mitigation fee increase. Please answer and submit the survey. (And you know the answers!)

PARKING SCANDAL

Parking-gate in Aspen. This one is CLASSIC. It seems that for the past four years, a merry band of local swindlers have "paid" for parking in Aspen with zeroed-out pre-paid debit cards, bilking the city of Aspen as much as $800,000 in uncollected parking revenues! Apparently our parking meters don't process transactions in real time, only in batches, so clever scofflaws figured out how to use empty gift cards in order to park for free. Then they told two friends who told two friends, who bought parking passes for their entire office or construction site all day every day, and a major scam was afoot. In 2010, losses from the scam amounted to $26,580. In 2011, it rose to $78,036. By 2012, $227,000. So far in 2014, it's already at $448,000. City officials say they had no clue because parking revenues were not affected. Right. Rumors abound that the city has long been aware but just didn't bother to do anything.

When pressed about this blatant negligence at a recent council meeting, our pal Steve Barwick got VERY defensive. He blames the scofflaws, the technology, credit card processing laws - anyone but city officials. A million here, a million there. To Barwick, it's all free money so who really cares! Also defensive about the matter is mayor Steve Skadron who got all teary and emotional when questioned by citizens about financial oversight in city hall. Clearly, in this case, there wasn't any, so the question was incredibly valid. In his defense of all things city, the mayor said it was "impossible" that this could happen in any other department. Sure, Steve. Where does your confidence come from? Is it because Steve Barwick told you so? Puh-lease. As if there haven't been MANY reasons to clamp down on and even fire Barwick over the years, once again council sits idly by. For shame!

But this isn't anything new. Parking in Aspen has a long history of misfeasance. In 2005, it was discovered that the city had over $1 million in unpaid parking fines that had not been turned over to collections. (See the pattern? A million here, a million there.) In 2009, it was revealed that the parking meters were accepting payments outside of paid parking hours. And parking department director Tim Ware knew about it but lied to cover his you-know-what. In 2011, the parking department was not following its own rules for carpool parking passes (requiring two DRIVERS in the car), electing to give passes to moms with an infant but not to commuters with a high school student of non-driving age. All of these issues can be neatly traced to Tim Ware, assistant city manager Randy Ready, and of course, Steve Barwick. How is it all three of these guys are still employed??

Furthermore, any sensible entity has a forecast of what its revenues should be. Did the city have a forecast? Did they ever once compare forecasts to actuals? Anyone with responsibility for revenue of any magnitude receives daily and weekly reports on actual vs expected revenues. They're called variance reports. A 5% variance is serious. A 30% variance is grounds for termination. Who is in charge over there??

For two weeks running, local columnist (who just so happens to be the former city finance director who knows where the bodies are buried) Paul Menter has been on the case. He wisely calls for an independent audit of the issue while pointing out how council, in their responsibility for overseeing city manager Steve Barwick, feebly questioned the bureaucrat and stood silently by as he took zero responsibility while criticizing citizens who dared question the city's integrity. Click through and check out Paul's comments from September 17HEREand September 24HERE. Simply put, he nails it.  Good job, Paul!

We'll be getting new and improved parking meters soon (to the tune of $600K) and the cops are investigating to see if they can determine who the bad guys are (good luck with that), but what about the oversight? The parking scam should never have become what it did. This should have quickly been nipped in the bud YEARS ago!  But no one was looking. Barwick is responsible for overseeing the parking department. And Barwick reports to council. The city finance director reports to Barwick but per the city charter has a fiduciary responsibility to council. Unfortunately, council is clueless and has likely never read the city charter. They ask all the wrong questions when they bother to ask any at all. And they certainly don't manage Barwick (he manages them). So, when the watchers stop watching, who's watching the city's millions? Just asking.

CLASS WARFARE IN ASPEN

In one of my favorite columns of the summer, Aspen Times columnist Glenn Beaton shares his thoughts on one of my favorite local topics - class warfare. You'll get a real kick out of it. I've read it several times and laugh out loud every time. HERE it is. Enjoy.

And one last quip that still has me snickering....

MICK GETS SMACKED DOWN (LITERALLY) BY AN OCTOGENARIAN
In August, our none-to-classy former mayor helped himself to food and drink at a private party. Yep, the grungy freeloader rode his bike up to a picnic and dove into the buffet. When asked to leave, he went nuts, screaming obscenities at women in the group. Misogyny. Who knew that this was yet another trait of our fine former dictator, although I can't say I'm surprised! In the end, Mick was "forcibly escorted" from the event by 84-year old Allen Mayfield, a retired US Air Force Colonel, who was in attendance. When Mick started swinging at Al, the octogenarian was forced to defend himself with a few pops to put Mick in his place. And thus, the quote of the summer from the Colonel, "I could have cold-cocked him if I had wanted to." You go, Al. Thanks for taking on this insipid bully. Your restraint is admirable. Many others would certainly have cold-cocked him if given the chance. I'm one.

ELECTION UPDATE: NOVEMBER 4

This general election will be administered by the Pitkin County Clerk and conducted by MAIL-IN BALLOTS. To be certain that you receive your mail-in ballot, go to www.PitkinVotes.org right now and verify your mailing address. I just did it and it's simple.

Ballots will be mailed to you on October 14. You can mail your ballot in or drop it off at the clerk's office - 530 E. Main Street, across from St. Mary's Church. And if you insist, you may also vote in person on election day or during the "early voting" period beginning October 20, 8:30a - 4:30p, Monday-Friday, and Saturdays 10/25 and 11/1 10a-2p.

On election day, "voting centers" will be open 7a - 7p at the clerk's office, Snowmass Town Hall and Grace Church in Basalt. Ballot drop off in Redstone is available 7a - 7p at the Church at Redstone on election day.

If you have questions or concerns, please contact elections@pitkincounty.com or 970-429-2713. And do yourself a favor. Don't wait until the last minute.

Saturday
Nov012014

ISSUE # 107: ANT Alert - Celebrate Our Rivers!

  "Water is the driving force of all nature."   

-- Leonardo da Vinci

A DIFFERENT KIND OF "HYDRO HAPPENING!"

I began to write about the city's Castle Creek Energy Center (CCEC) and hydro plant in 2010. My vehement opposition was initially focused on the abysmal financials of what I saw as a "trophy project," designed to stroke the egos of then-mayor Mick Ireland and our pal at the helm of the city, Steve Barwick, not to mention the myriad bureaucrats in the city's well-funded water department. By conducting the research for my first issue on the subject (see Issue #45), I began learning and caring deeply about the vast environmental implications of such an ill-conceived folly. Riparian habitats, in-stream flows, river diversions, minimum water levels - these phrases became rallying cries to motivate Aspen voters to learn about the previously-ignored environmental risks of building the CCEC/hydro plant and to reconsider and re-evaluate the beleaguered "green at any cost" project that had been initially approved in 2007.

 

Responsible stewardship of these fragile rivers and streams in the arid Rocky Mountain west is not something that we can rely on the government to provide on our behalf. Obviously. However, as the recent decision to (finally!) shutter the CCEC demonstrates, we, the citizenry, can and must do our part to protect these valuable and irreplaceable natural assets.

 

WILD RIVERS NIGHT AT THE WHEELER - PLAN TO ATTEND!

Please join American Rivers (www.AmericanRivers.org ) for a unique event at the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday, June 5.

 

Wild Rivers Night will feature Pete McBride and a private screening of DamNation. Highlighting McBride's stunning photography and insightful storytelling, American Rivers will present his short films I AM RED and Chasing Water, as well as a photo tour of his recent expedition down the Gulf of California following the pulse flow on the Colorado River.

 

Following a brief panel discussion, the most recent film from Patagonia, DamNation, that has been winning acclaim at film festivals across the country, will be featured.

 

Please RSVP to this special event at www.AmericanRivers.org/Wheeler . A $15 donation is suggested and would be greatly appreciated. All proceeds from this event will be dedicated to Saving Our Streams, a Colorado nonprofit based in Aspen, whose mission is to support local streams and riparian zones, and to ensure that any diversions of water and related development do not in any way compromise their health or increase the possibility of risk to their fragile ecosystems.

 

SAVING OUR STREAMS: CASTLE CREEK FLOW MONITOR

Installed in 2012 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and funded by Saving Our Streams, a stream flow gage now monitors the water levels and discharge (in cubic feet per second) of Castle Creek.

 

Considered the "gold standard," a USGS stream flow gage is highly reliable and provides continual monitoring in real time. The accumulated information will serve to educate the Aspen community so that we make informed decisions regarding our precious mountain streams.

 

Visit www.SavingOurStreams.org and click on "Castle Creek Monitor" to see the stream flow data for yourself!  And if you cannot attend the event, please consider making a donation to this worthy organization.  They truly ARE "saving our streams."

 

SEE YOU AT THE WHEELER!

Wild Rivers Night

Thursday, June 5

7pm

 

 

Saturday
Nov012014

ISSUE #106: HydrANT - CCEC ALL Dried Up!

"We might need to sell our 'hydro mission accomplished' banner along with our turbine."   -- Adam Frisch, Aspen City Councilman, 4/21/14

CASTLE CREEK HYDRO: ADIOS, SAYONARA, AUF WIEDERSEHEN

The last issue (#105) of The Red Ant left off with an impending presentation by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to city council with the four most viable renewable energy alternatives for Aspen. Given the priorities determined by council last fall in its quest to meet the city's goal of 100% renewable energy for its municipal portfolio (serving customers in the downtown core and West End) by the end of 2015, and in order to bridge the gap of 17K-24K MegaWatt hours/year (MWh/yr) of renewable energy production needed to meet this goal, NREL was charged with presenting detailed outlines of each opportunity, energy output estimates, lifecycle cost estimates, among other analyses.

 

The evening's goal was to choose two options to pursue further with detailed "make this happen" plans from which one or possibly both will be implemented to meet the goal. It was no surprise that the beleaguered Hydro Plant (CCEC) made the initial top 4, given that the city already has $6.9 million sunk into the mess. (That's the city's number. My guess is the real expenditures on outside legal council, expenditures buried in the water department budget and staff time makes that number A LOT higher.) But whoa! An unanticipated surprise! By the end of the unbiased and professionally moderated meeting, 4 of 5 council members saw two renewable energy options that they clearly favored far more than the completion of the CCEC. Here's how it all played out:

 

VOTERS RECEIVE MAILER

As posted in Issue #105, a diverse group of local citizens signed on to a letter in continued opposition to the CCEC hydro plant. As expected, this created great controversy, especially since it highlighted several CCEC-damning remarks by Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins. Mayor Skadron made his displeasure at this mailer well known, telling anyone who would listen that the mailer was just "propaganda" with shadowy financing. Conspiracy theorists railed to the local papers that the "Koch Brothers" and other outside anonymous interests had funded the effort. That was, until American Rivers (www.AmericanRivers.org) proudly stepped forward and claimed financial responsibility for the mailer's costs, supplemented by individual contributions from local hydro plant opponents. I recently deposited my $50 food tax refund check from the city and promptly mailed in a check to support the cause. So much for shadowy financing. And since when is an unsolicited report from world-renowned scientist Amory Lovins propaganda?!

 

COUNCIL'S RENEWABLE ENERGY PRIORITIES

Last fall, in step 1 (of 3, part of the contract for analysis of the city's alternatives by NREL), council methodically studied and then voted on their official "decision criteria" for selecting Aspen's future renewable energy sources. These criteria are telling in and of themselves.

 

Highest priority renewable energy sources would:

  • Have community involvement and awareness. (That's nice and all, but if the renewable energy goal isn't something the community voted on or has any say in, what's the point?)    
  • Be owned and/or controlled by the city of Aspen.  (Really?  As a national politician famously said, "What difference does it make?"  Clearly this is a sentiment left over from the prior Mick-led council where renewable energy opportunities such as down valley community solar arrays were eliminated from consideration after a diatribe from the former mayor who could not fathom supporting a privately held renewable energy source.  His belief is that nobody should profit from renewable energy production or distribution, and that the government does these things best.)       
  • Provide the lowest MWh/yr lifecycle cost.  (Who can complain when these guys exercise a modicum of fiscal restraint?  Not The Red Ant!)      

Secondary priorities included:

  • Long term (20 - 50 years) rate stability.  (Sounds reasonable, to the degree that market forces can be predicted.  However, in the rapidly evolving renewable energy sector, the emergence of new and more reliable/affordable/accessible energy sources makes a 5 year projection nothing short of a pipe dream, never mind 20 - 50 years!)    
  • The "visibility" of Aspen's renewable energy leadership.  (Isn't THIS something?!  Staff often touts how Aspen needs to be the example to the world to justify comically high costs for its "green" efforts, and clearly council has drunk the Kool-Aid!  Aspen should do what's appropriate and best for Aspen.  And economically feasible for its taxpayers.  Period.  To worry about what "other people" think is exactly what your mother told you not to do, remember?)      

The tertiary priorities (clearly not very important to council) were:

  • Ability to provide backup power at critical Aspen facilities.  (See "Markalunas" below.)  
  • Proximity to Aspen.  (This should never EVER have been a consideration.  Another reason for not considering a deal for solar energy through Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective in 2011 was because Mick determined that this source of renewable energy was "not local enough" and he didn't want "energy-hogging homeowners" to outsource their solar mitigation.  Good to see that this council has evolved beyond that utter foolishness!)       

NOT a priority (these decision criteria did not garner ONE SINGLE VOTE among council):

  • CO2 emission reduction.  (Yep, the stated goal of Aspen's Canary Initiative is NOT a council priority!)     
  • Initiate/catalyze "new" renewable energy projects.  (Aspen's role in the renewable energy universe is NOT focused on developing new sources of energy, just converting our municipal portfolio to renewable sources.  Big difference.)   
  • Meet the 2015 renewable energy goal timeline.  (Again no council respect for the Canary Initiative!)       
  • "New" energy generation.  (Clearly, council has prioritized purchasing renewable energy from existing sources over investing to develop our own "new" sources.  Thank goodness!)     

 

THE NREL FINAL FOUR

In no particular order, NREL presented detailed the pros/cons for what it sees at the four most viable renewable energy sources to be evaluated for their potential to meet Aspen's lofty yet laudable goals. These included:

 

Large-Scale Solar: This appealing option that Aspen would own and control, and could brag about across the airwaves, was hamstrung by costs associated with in-town land (8 dedicated acres) and a frighteningly low MWh/yr output limit (a result of the city's existing contract with MEAN - our energy supplier -- that caps our ability to generate energy from solar at 1500 MWh/yr, far short of what we need) kept this out of the finals. The estimated MWh cost was $130.

 

CCEC Hydro: Our nightmare project of the moment would give the city the ownership and control it craves, but the financials appear to be questionable, especially given the impacts of uncertain future spring run-offs on rate stability. (NREL repeatedly stated that the numbers they were working from are city-generated at $63 MWh. Had they agreed with these, surely they would not have issued more than just a few disclaimers, including the city's sketchy assumption of a final $10.5 million cost!) Besides, the CCEC hydro would only produce 5500 MWh/yr, therefore it too would not meet our 17K-24K MWh/yr need! This low output notably seemed to come as a great surprise to council members. Never mind The Red Ant has been writing about this since June 2010!! Furthermore, the current and potential lawsuits associated with the CCEC all but guarantee that this project would not be completed for many, many years, if at all.

 

New Wind Contracts: The city currently purchases over 20K MWh/yr of wind power through its MEAN contract. Increasing these purchases by quantities of 5K-20K MWh/yr through the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which is incidentally looking for buyers, or alternatively through Excel Energy in conjunction with MEAN, would immediately address Aspen's MWh/yr gap at an estimate of $90 per MWh. This option was very popular with council, making everyone's short list and advancing this option to the finals.

 

Des Moines Landfill Methane Gas: The most popular choice by far (all four council members liked it best) was the purchase of energy from "harnessed" methane gas from a capped landfill in Iowa. The facility is already operational and in business with MEAN. Aspen could access up to 18K MWh/yr immediately at an estimated cost of $96 per MWh. Recall that despite council's non-priority of reducing CO2, methane gas is far worse than CO2 in the "green" realm, so purchasing this source of renewable energy has valuable offset benefits! This option was the evening's winner, advancing to the finals as well.

 

Notable "other" Opportunities: NREL was certain to include other ideas that theoretically exist, but could not help Aspen meet its renewable energy goals by the 2015 deadline. These include projects still in the planning stage such as more wind power from WAPA, a hydro plant at Olmstead and additional hydro power from Ridgway (both hydro options are many years away). Additionally, NREL raised several "idea phase" concepts for the record, including gas fuel cell or micro-turbine using directed biogas, local coal mine methane waste recovery, new utility energy contracts, various local micro-hydro options, distributed biomass-anaerobic digestion, geothermal drilling, irrigation ditch hydro power and the conversion of local landfill gas to electricity.

 

THE VOTE THAT KILLED THE HYDRO PLANT

Each member of council got to vote for two options. Additional wind and the landfill/methane gas were the resounding hands-down winners. Dwayne, Adam, Ann and Art each voted for these two options. CCEC died a swift and painless (but long overdue) death, but not before Mayor Skadron emotionally called the CCEC's death knell "an unfortunate step." He went on to lament, "I think our hydro project is a well-conceived one, I think it's sensitive to the environment, and I believe it to be a financially sustainable project." The poor guy clearly didn't do his homework nor any of the past four years' reading from various experts, and seemingly ignored the evening's presentation at hand. He probably owed that pathetic speech to Mick who helped him get elected. The look of shock upon the NREL analysts' faces was priceless. They couldn't believe their ears. In any case, it was sad to witness such a foolish diatribe when the result was a foregone conclusion. Unlike his predecessor, however, Skadron was very gracious in defeat.

 

CITY STAFF SQUIRMS / THE TRUTH COMES OUT

The best part of the evening (aside from CCEC getting unequivocally axed) was when NREL explained to council that the Des Moines Landfill option could be implemented into Aspen's energy mix "tomorrow." Shocked, council asked for details on this opportunity for quick fulfillment. Turns out that MEAN and the Des Moines Landfill have had a contract out for Aspen's approval for months. Staff just hadn't bothered to mention it to council, lest they pivot away from throwing good money after bad at the CCEC hydro. Yep, MEAN has been waiting months for Aspen's answer on whether or not we want this power! For anyone who has ever doubted The Red Ant's insistence that city staff has been driving the CCEC hydro plant and only telling council what they felt was necessary to keep the project alive and funded, well here's your proof. The water weasels got caught.

 

Additionally, as the vote was moving along among council members in overwhelming support of the landfill and additional wind, city manager Steve Barwick and a representative from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) both chimed in during the proceedings to plea desperately for the life of the CCEC. It was comical, if not pathetic. And, wholly inappropriate, as this was a work session between council and NREL with no provision for comment, public or otherwise. In an obvious fluster at the impending loss of his (and Mick's) legacy project, Barwick rattled off a list of Mick-era renewable energy priorities, begging council to look at the four options under consideration through the lens of "CO2 reduction, 'new' proprietary projects and 'new' renewable energy generation." He, and the CORE official, both shamefully stated, "Renewable energy is not good energy unless it's new." Unbelievable. And palpable in its desperation.

 

SKADRON: MEDVEDEV TO MICK'S PUTIN? OR WAR WITHIN THE PEOPLE'S PARTY?

Has the love affair ended? Within days of the council vote that ended the CCEC, Mick turned on his protégé. Apparently the emotional pro-CCEC nonsense from Mayor Skadron as the votes were tallied was not enough to placate his mentor. In his whiny weekly column in the Aspen Daily News, our has-been former mayor ripped into Steve, accusing him of forging "bizarre relationships" and prioritizing being nice and attending social events over "standing up for the public interest." Mick is clearly unhinged at the realization that his pet project has just been euthanized. That he decided to dedicate his column to disparaging one of his last good soldiers was unexpected to say the least. And wholly inappropriate.

 

It comes as no surprise that Mick disagrees with the decision to kill the CCEC hydro plant - it was his baby, after all - and he has every right to bemoan its loss.  But to peddle outright lies (council's vote to pursue wind power and the landfill options was based upon the "urging of anti-government ideologues" AND "abandoning hydro means abandoning water rights") and excoriate the current mayor for actually supporting the idiotic CCEC in the face of growing opposition among the populace and clearly at the council table is yet one more reason to thank our lucky stars that Mick was term-limited out of office a year ago. It will be interesting to see how much longer Steve will remain a loyal soldier of the increasingly irrelevant Mick regime of days gone by.

 

POOR JIM MARKALUNAS

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away .... Or, more accurately, in 1961, former water department manager and steward of the old Castle Creek power plant Jim Markalunas scurried to the shuttered 1890's-era power house amidst an epic early-season blizzard and fired up the turbines. This heroic act provided an emergency source of power that effectively rescued Aspen from freezing in the dark.

 

Now a regular writer to the local papers, Markalunas has been a staunch supporter of building the new CCEC hydro plant and bringing hydro power back to Aspen, if even just for emergency power. His letters have painted an idyllic picture of a bygone era, and regularly romanticized the archaic 1930's technology once employed here and ironically (foolishly?) proposed anew for the modern day CCEC. He laments the day that the old plant was shut down, "I wish I could still enjoy the benefits of Castle Creek Hydro. We cannot undo the poor decisions made long ago to scrap the turbines of the historic power house, but we can restore clean renewable energy for Aspen." Ahhh, glory days. It's understandable. But after the recent council vote that shut down the CCEC for good, Markalunas' tone changed dramatically. His personal sadness over the old plant's demise and his hopes dashed for a new 21st century version morphed into pure vitriol. "I must express my deep disappointment in the lack of fortitude by our Aspen City Council... our city council seems unable to stay the course against the false winds of misinformation and selfish 'NIMBY' interests," he wrote.

 

Jim, you're a good man who has honorably served our community. This one was simply not to be. You fought the good fight. There are many viable and exciting renewable energy options on tap for Aspen that were not available in 1959 when the old hydro plant was decommissioned. As you learn more about these, my guess is that you'll like what you see. I don't always agree with city council and their decisions, but please, don't accuse them of "lack of fortitude."

 

TRIUMPH OF CITIZEN OVERSIGHT

No one is spiking the ball in the end zone, but the anti-CCEC folks are understandably pleased. When the facts became known and the ugly truth emerged, the "Yay, let's build a hydro plant because it's so green" giddy enthusiasm waned. Sadly, the misguided CCEC hydro plant has cost the taxpayers of Aspen well over $7 million. We may never know the full cost of this folly. But importantly, the decision to move on without the CCEC is significant beyond just the obvious financial and environmental aspects. City council took back its public policy responsibility, long ago hijacked by staff bureaucrats who pushed their own agendas. In a recent letter to city council that was published in the papers, Maurice Emmer summed it up perfectly:

 

"You know I do not hesitate to criticize. I am equally willing to commend. Your decisions Monday night have pointed the Canary Initiative in a much more practical and successful direction. This is good not only for the Canary Initiative, which now has a chance of meeting its renewable energy goal on time. It is also an improvement in the relationship between city council and city staff. For years staff has spoon fed city councils only what staff wants the council to read or hear, unreasonably controlling the direction of public policy. Hopefully this city council will correct the relationship between council and staff. Last night's results are promising." Amen.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

NREL will be back in July for phase 3, with detailed next steps for the wind and landfill energy acquisitions. They are also expected to present and discuss ways Aspen can reduce its power demand through efficiency measures designed to lower local power consumption.

 

As for the CCEC, we're watching closely. This will not be an easy one for the bureaucrats to let go of. Time (and open records requests) will tell whether or not the city continues to throw money at the CCEC. There are a lot of idle hands in Aspen's water department these days. Hopefully they're looking at how to sell our $1.5 million custom turbine, commissioned merely hours after the original vote to raise $5.5 million for the CCEC hydro plant passed in 2007. The folks from NREL believe Aspen can sell the thing for 20 cents on the dollar.

 

At press time, there has been nothing made public about the status of the water rights lawsuit that the city faces. The plaintiffs claim that by tearing out the old hydro plant infrastructure in the late 1950's, the city abandoned its water rights for hydro power. Use it or lose it. (Contrary to popular worry, however, no other water rights are in question, just the water rights for hydro power.) Frankly, I hope that the lawsuit presses on. I believe that the city DID abandon its water rights for hydro power and I'd like the idea of a hydro plant on Castle Creek denied for eternity.

 

A RED ANT "THANK YOU"

My dear friend, local environmentalist Connie Harvey and I thank you for your support of the anti-CCEC hydro plant efforts over the past 4 years.  It took a dedicated and diverse group of community members to fight this project, but none of it could have been accomplished without the interest and involvement of literally hundreds of citizens. Your varied contributions kept the drumbeat alive, and in the end, together we shut it down.  Cheers!

 

Stay in touch. We'll let you know what we're up to next!

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Apr302014

ISSUE # 105: City Hall Behavior - tANTamount to Tyranny

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."                -- Edmund Burke

HYDRO HAPPENINGS

As the seemingly never-ending fight over the hydro plant heats up yet again, we all await the recommendations of the $90+K study commissioned by the city from National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), expected this coming week. As expected, the narrow scope of the study ("home-grown renewable energy" -- recall that a Carbondale-based solar energy source was deemed by the prior council as being "not local enough") all but ensures that the Castle Creek Energy Center (CCEC) a.k.a. the hydro plant will make the list as a viable source of renewable energy to help the city meet its "canary initiative" goal of a 100% renewable portfolio by 2015. It doesn't take a market research specialist to recognize that the city's commissioned studies are always spec'd so as to justify a predetermined position already held by the local government. It's free money (yours and mine) so what's another $90+K when it enables the bureaucrats to wave a foregone conclusion in front of the local papers, "justifying" their latest ill-conceived desire!?

The NREL, a Golden, Colorado, division of the Department of Energy that serves as the DOE's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficient research and development, has a 35-year track record in the field, not to mention $352 million in annual federal funding (2012). And word has it that they were wise enough to have spoken to Old Snowmass resident and internationally esteemed energy expert Amory Lovins (who also founded the Rocky Mountain Institute) about his in-depth, 33-page unsolicited-yet-scathing April 15, 2013, report to council (read it HERE, it's truly fascinating) that excoriates the CCEC in no uncertain terms, ripping the project itself, its premise, the decision-making process, as well as the city's sketchy and ever-changing project financials. In short, Lovins admonishes the city:

 

"The city's economic analysis of CCEC is flawed and unreliable."

 

"The CCEC has higher costs and risks than available, ample and suitable alternatives, even neglecting its sunk costs and counting only its to-go costs."

 

And my personal favorite? CCEC got into trouble because of "inadequate consideration of available alternatives and strategic risk management-caused bad decisions; input from council's technical advisors was either ill-informed or misinterpreted; and input from the public, which in this region includes world-class independent experts, was improperly solicited and inadequately considered."

 

While not expecting a miracle (it's not like we have enough wind in the city limits for this to become a new energy source in lieu of the CCEC, for example), opponents of the CCEC will be watching closely to see exactly how the NREL study nets out. (The NREL report is scheduled to be presented to council on Monday, April 21, however, at press time, the city has neglected to put anything on its website to confirm this and/or notify the public. Please check www.AspenPitkin.com on Monday for details and the meeting agenda.)

In the meantime, the final decision to proceed (or not) with the construction of the CCEC rests with council. Yes, they were "advised" by local voters in 2012 (2044 against continuing the project vs 1934 for), but Mayor Steve Skadron, Ann Mullins and Art Daily all rebuffed that outcome prior to being elected to mayor/council in 2013. All 3 went on record with The Red Ant and said in no uncertain terms that the vote was too close, the voters got it wrong and/or there could be reasons to ignore the outcome of the vote.

In their own words, in support of the hydro plant despite the November 2012 vote:

Mullins: "The vote last November was won by a very narrow margin so we are far from consensus on this project. I would like to see this issue come up before City Council again and rethink the process and outcome with the following four goals in mind. Arrive at a result that: 1. Supports healthy rivers and streams; 2. Produces clean renewable energy; 3. Retains our water rights; and 4. Makes economic sense. With these goals in mind and the willingness of those on both sides of the argument to discuss and/or accept some compromise we should be able to gain consensus on the outcome of this project." Looks like someone would benefit from reading the Lovins report!!!

Daily: "I support the hydro project, assuming the associated water rights are confirmed through the pending court action or otherwise. I believe the related science (minimum stream flows, etc.) and the economics of the project have been substantially addressed. It's another step in the provision of clean renewable energy for the City (the Ruedi hydro project, for example), and I believe it will reap long term benefits for our community and the generations to come." Someone else might benefit from reading the Lovins report too!!

Skadron: "My goal is to see Aspen's electric utility portfolio consist of 100% renewable sources. Today, the city is considering options to get us there, exclusive of hydro, that didn't previously exist. It's not my

intention to disregard the outcome of the advisory vote, but should all other options fail to satisfy our 100% goal, hydro should, at the very least, be re-considered." Steve, too, should read the Lovins report, which contains many viable options aside from the disastrous CCEC!! Or maybe, in order to get Mick's endorsement for mayor last year, he made a promise to see the CCEC through?? 

This community, in its desire to elect people who are "good guys" or have "compelling stories," often elects people who could not care less about the political desires of those they represent. Sometimes, these folks simply do not do their homework or even a modicum of independent reading/thinking on critical issues! In this case, just one year ago, we clearly elected three! It seems that Adam Frisch and Dwayne Romero see the idiocy of proceeding with the CCEC, but a 2-3 vote for fiscal and environmental sanity gets us nowhere good. Short of a council vote against CCEC, and in the absence of telling city staff "no," work (and especially spending) on the CCEC continues.

If you care and are so inclined, please reach out to Art, Steve and Ann (art.daily@cityofaspen.com, ann.mullins@cityofaspen.com, and steve.skadron@cityofaspen.com) and IMPLORE them to read Amory Lovins' report. They need to know that if you ignore the voters, that's one thing. But to ignore the counsel and recommendations of one of the world's renowned experts on energy is another thing entirely.

EFFORTS TO STOP CCEC AGAIN

Reuniting after the successful 2012 vote against the completion of the hydro plant, local business/community leaders and environmentalists Terry Paulson, Delia Malone, Connie Harvey, Mike Maple and Ken Neubecker have again assumed their advisory roles in the grassroots effort to continue the fight. Joined by local energy expert and consultant Dr. Phil Verleger (whose studies encompass the changing relationship between the energy and economic sectors, having served in the Johnson, Ford and Carter administrations in economic advisory and energy policy positions), the leadership and coalition to stop the hydro plant ONCE AND FOR ALL is back together again, organized, informed and raising funds. The group, which coordinated the petition effort in early 2012 that captured the signatures of 953 Aspen voters who oppose the hydro plant, is responsible for overturning the zoning ordinance for the CCEC facility on Power Plant Road and in turn getting the (sadly only advisory) question on the 2012 ballot. As a reader of The Red Ant, you are aware of the hydro shenanigans. Unfortunately, many others are not. Therefore, Aspen voters are currently receiving the following letter in their mailboxes, paid for and signed by the advisors listed above and dozens of concerned local citizens who are appalled that several members of council stand to defy the voters (and common environmental and fiscal sense) with their support of the beleaguered CCEC project:

"Dear Community Member

As you're aware, in November 2012, voters in Aspen rejected city efforts to continue seeking to develop a costly, environmentally damaging hydroelectric plant on Castle Creek (CCEC). They did so because it was evident that the hydropower project was not the right choice as Aspen looks to expand its renewable energy options.

However, the CCEC is now again on the table for consideration. Recently, the city of Aspen requested a study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to review possible future renewable energy alternatives for Aspen. NREL staff has indicated that a Castle Creek hydroelectric plant will be included among the list of recommendations. The city continues to spend thousands of dollars on the federal permitting process. This seems to be an end-run around the 2012 vote and a possible way for the city to move it forward despite voters' wishes.

Energy experts and environmentalists agree the CCEC is a bad idea. Recently, world-renowned energy expert Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute issued a 33-page report to city leadership against the project. 'It's clear to me, as it has long seemed to many, that the Castle Creek Hydroelectric Plant is economically unsound,' Lovins said. 'The CCEC's total cost could make it the costliest hydro plant ever built. There are attractive opportunities to achieve your energy goals with less cost, risk, and controversy.'
  

Environmental groups agree. American Rivers, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Western Resource Advocates and others have urged the city to consider the serious ecological harm that would be inflicted by the large-scale water diversion needed to operate the plant, which will divert more than half of Maroon and Castle creeks' flows for several months per year. The Maroon Creek diversions never will even return to Maroon Creek. Studies show that even a small change in flow will have serious ramifications for aquatic life on the vibrant creeks and the surrounding ecosystem. In short, addressing the crisis of climate change by pursuing renewables shouldn't come at the expense of the very environment we're seeking to protect.

We believe that continued efforts to promote the CCEC are misguided. The voters of Aspen have spoken and made their voice heard on this issue. The project should be taken off the table while the city pursues alternative forms of renewable energy, of which there are many."
  

If you would like to support the effort to once again shut down the CCEC, even by simply lending your name, please reply to this email and I will get your info to the group. Financial contributions are additionally being sought to fund a community-wide effort to convince our elected representatives to say NO and end this nonsense. This is not a political campaign and therefore your name will not appear on any list or in any reporting without your permission. Every dollar counts. Please send your check made out to "No Castle Creek Hydro" to:

                                    No Castle Creek Hydro

                                    PO Box 167

                                    Aspen, CO 81612

The large and VERY diverse group of local hydro plant opponents is well aware of the city's misleading behavior and mishandling of the CCEC, and especially the fact that council has not unequivocally told staff "NO MORE." In the absence of "NO," all staff hears is "YES." Defying the will of the voters is never a wise practice for elected representatives!! FYI - there is no municipal election this spring (thank goodness), but Skadron, Romero and Frisch all must run again in 2015. The "No Castle Creek Hydro" effort is perhaps an early shot across the bow.

Other ideas, if you'd like to get involved:

 

Read the Amory Lovins report HERE.

 

Familiarize yourself with the letter above.

 

Write a letter to the local papers (rcarroll@aspentimes.com and sack@aspendailynews.com )

 

Write to and talk to members of city council.

 

Talk to your friends. Forward this issue of The Red Ant to those who might not receive it.

 

Attend city council meetings and make your views known during public comment.

 

Donate to the cause (info above). This is a GRASSROOTS effort and every dollar helps!

 

WASTE WATCH

Ahhhh, that nightmare of an intersection at Hunter and Durant Streets in front of Gondola Plaza: lots of people (often in ski boots), lots of cars, lots of buses, lots of ice - not a great combination. A fix is in: picture raised brick-colored paving (no step off the curb), with "rain gardens" to collect stormwater and "bulb-out" curb extensions to slow traffic and shorten crosswalks. But for $616K from the city coffers when just last year the price estimate was $413K?? What happened?? That's 50% cost increase!! Next week, the city will get busy on its spendy project, citing "higher materials and labor costs" as rationale for the escalated price increase. Really?? $203K worth?? Council "noticed" the cost increase, but simply approved it without argument. Again, when it's free money, the city (including council) is either pathetic at estimating costs (obviously) or indifferent (more likely). City engineers responsible for the project can't even speculate on whether the new set-up will enhance safety or prevent diagonal jay-walking. They merely "hope so." Swell.

Meanwhile, across town at Wagner Park, a $478K renovation has been approved by council that will provide a new irrigation system aimed at shortening the time the park is closed in the spring while the grass grows, as well as a re-graded turf surface with better drainage. These sound like good things, however, next year (2015), Wagner Park is slated for a "master plan" process which could dramatically alter the usage of the park, improvements, access, events, etc. Maybe the half-million in upgrades ought to be postponed until after the future of the park and its usage is discussed and determined? Nah, too rational. Instead, the city has committed another $338K to purchase temporary flooring to protect the park during special events. Gotta keep those Parks Department employees busy!

BIKE SHARING: WILL IT RIDE IN 2014?

Despite the bankruptcy of PBSC, the bike provider and software/management system used by Aspen's subsidized We-Cycle bike sharing program, word on the street is that the program is not in jeopardy. But this comes from the same program founder and director who chose to ignore hefty subsidies for the program as part of the annual financial statement. Before the 2014 season begins, $200K in sponsorship funding is additionally needed. With just 100 bikes in our inventory, that's $2000 per bike!

Daily News columnist Paul Menter recently reminded readers that We-Cycle incurred $65K in start-up capital costs in 2013 ($6500 per bike), part of which was covered by a state "congestion mitigation and air quality (CMAQ) grant. My favorite line of his recent column on bike sharing is, "Of course, the Chinese did the 'everybody rides bicycles' thing by necessity back in the '50's and '60's, so they are well-practiced. And, of course, they are communists, well versed in the art of doing what they are told to do to benefit someone else's idea of the collective good, just in case you may have forgotten who we are seeking to emulate here."  He concludes, "There just are not enough non-communists willing to pay even a small portion of the cost to ride someone else's bike. Can anyone say opportunity cost? There must be a better use for a $2000 subsidy, be it public or privately funded, than to pay the cost of an overpriced shared bicycle for six or seven months." Ya think?! The Red Ant will keep you posted on We-Cycle and its 2014 funding, including the source(s). Stay tuned.

FIRE DISTRICT BOARD ELECTION

The Aspen Fire Protection District is holding a mail-in ballot election to fill three openings on its 5-member board of directors. Fire district board directors oversee the financial management of their district. The Aspen Fire Protection District has an annual budget of approximately $2.9 million ($1.7 million in operational costs and $1.2 million in bond debt for the two fire stations). That's quite a fiduciary duty for a community of this size!

Check your mailbox for your ballot if you live within the Aspen Fire Protection District. The deadline for your vote to be counted is 7p on May 6. The Red Ant is not involved in this election in terms of interviewing/querying candidates, however, the volume of inquiries I have received about this election has motivated me to share the names of the candidates for whom I have cast my ballot:

X         D. Stone (Stoney) Davis

X         Steven Seyffert

X         Stefan Reveal

Please take 2 minutes and vote in this election. Voting in a city the size of Aspen is very important. Be a part of the process!

HOUSING HOMEWORK

You are all too aware that I have been cogitating on the future of our subsidized housing program for some time. Recent meetings with similarly interested citizens have yielded many new ideas about improving the program and restructuring it so that the program's future addresses the changing needs of our community while not ignoring the needs of its residents or the structural/maintenance needs of an aging physical plant.

Do you have an idea for maintaining the physical plant of our aging facilities that also provides work-able incentives for subsidized owners to down-size, sell or upgrade their units? I've been collecting several novel ideas and have to believe that there are more out there.

What are your thoughts (for and against) a comprehensive audit of our entire 2800 unit subsidized housing portfolio? Who lives there? Are they compliant? Where do they work?

What else is on your mind about APCHA and our subsidized housing program?

Please share your thoughts and ideas. I am contemplating how to get APCHA, its board, and the principals in our local government to responsibly address and re-assess the program. At this juncture, it seems that a compilation of well-developed options rather than just the obvious criticism might be a better way to approach the issue. Flies - honey, you know. Please weigh in and let me know what you're thinking. And if you know someone in subsidized housing who has an idea, please put them in touch. I'm listening. TheRedAntEM@comcast.net

Sunday
Mar162014

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

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

 

FEES, FEES & MORE FEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CENTENNIAL: RATTLING THE TIN CUP

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

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

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

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

DON'T RENT YOUR CONDO TO A LOCAL WORKER

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

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

HYDRO LIVES ON

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

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

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

HOTEL ASPEN REDEVELOPMENT

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

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

YOU CAN'T MAKE IT UP

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

FOOD TAX REFUND

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

 

 

Monday
Feb032014

ISSUE # 103: Hard to QuANTify

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

MORE MITIGATION MAYHEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MITIGATION LEGALITIES

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

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

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

DO WE REALLY NEED MORE HOUSING?

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

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

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

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

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

WARNING: THE FUTURE OF SUBSIDIZED HOUSING GROWTH

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

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

WASTE WATCH

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

BURLINGAME PHASE 2 UPDATE

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

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

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

SECOND HOMEOWNERS - A SURVEY

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

FOOD TAX REFUND TIME

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

Monday
Feb032014

ISSUE # 102: He Kinda Looks Like sANTa Claus

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

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

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

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

A RED ANT HOLIDAY TRADITION

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

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

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

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

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

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, ASPEN-STYLE

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

A hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

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

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Caribbean rotations

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

Ongoing lawsuits

Caribbean rotations

Housing mitigation

Bike Sharing eyesores

Fees on private rentals

Geothermal drilling

Housing needs assumptions

Dogs AT Burlingame

Parklets in the streets

New bus stops

Laws he won't obey

And a hydro plant he just will not let die.

 

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

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

APPENDIX

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

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