"In Aspen, we have a strong city government, weak city council system."
-- Mayor Steve Skadron (October 27, 2014)
We have plenty to be thankful for this holiday weekend, not the least of which is abundant early season snow and an early opening on Ajax. Keep doing your snow dance, however. This weekend's warm temps make for great photos of the World Cup races but 'tis the season for snow, snow and more snow.
With our local government, the situation is not so rosy....
PARKING-GATE: CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUND
Paid parking in Aspen was never about generating revenue for city coffers. It was simply a way to keep employees from driving into town and taking up parking spaces all day. Ostensibly, paid parking would be a disincentive for this behavior while enabling shoppers more opportunity to find a parking spot.
My how the times have changed! The local papers have gone quiet on the story for now, but the big mystery remains: How did the city of Aspen get bilked for what could amount to $800K+ over 4 years by scofflaws who exploited a widely-known fault in the parking meters -- using zeroed out debit cards as methods of payment for parking? And more importantly, how, despite this thievery, is parking fee revenue UP over 50% year-to-date over last? Yes, you're reading that right. The city LOST almost $700K in 2014 before the ruse was brought to light. Staff claims they didn't notice the theft because parking revenues have remained constant. Well, that's a load of horse puckey! In the timeframe when the city "lost" nearly $700K, parking revenues were still up $750K year-to-date. (Through August, parking fee revenue for 2014 was nearly $2.2 million when the first eight months of 2013 yielded just $1.4 million!) You'd think, if you were rational, that given the theft of $700K, revenues would be off dramatically. Nope. In fact it's just the opposite. Hmmmmm...
Initially, to quell the public outcry (it certainly wasn't because city council was outraged - they actually defended staff), the city manager tried to hire the city's current auditor to audit the city's internal revenue collection and management systems. How convenient: the auditors who work at Barwick's behest would investigate themselves on issues they've "missed" over the past 4+ years!?! After loud public push-back, council finally opened their eyes and engaged, opting instead to hire a 3rd party auditor. The search for this auditor is currently underway and being conducted by a citizens committee (unfortunately chosen by Barwick and city staff). It is yet to be seen where this is headed and whether or not this will be an objective process. Sadly, I am not optimistic. Despite the high moral character of a couple of the committee members, they were not chosen by the city manager because they have demonstrated any skepticism of city hall nor are known whistleblowers. And in some cases, the word "joiner" comes to mind, as in "city hall sycophant." I fear that the scope of the investigation will be broadened beyond parking (not necessarily a bad thing), but, in the process, watered down.
What really needs to be done is what they say on tv: bring in BDO. Whoever is hired for this investigation should look at parking revenues for at least four years to ensure that the money collected from parkers actually reached city bank accounts, and that these monies were then under the full control of the city finance department - not the parking department.
The wild swings in reported parking revenues over the past several years indicate to The Red Ant (an affirmed conspiracy theorist) that some of the actual receipts were skimmed off the top and diverted from city control. Yep, I'm saying it. I think money was being skimmed internally and the "debit card parking scam" was a red-herring, designed to exploit a known weakness in the system and thereby serve as rationale for lower parking revenues if the ruse was ever to be discovered. Sources tell The Red Ant that friends in the parking department told them how to scam the meters. But at some point someone on the inside, likely in the finance department, noted the crazy numbers and said something, perhaps at a staff meeting, at which point the internal theft quickly ceased. However, by this point in time, the debit card theft was in full swing (again, nearly $700K stolen this year). And in the absence of internal stealing, parking revenues soared.
It's just a theory. But it's what I believe. I do hope we find out. I'd love nothing more than to see a special prosecutor get ahold of this. What do you think?
DOUBLE-BASEMENT BAN: KNEE-JERK REACTION OF THE YEAR
Spurred by complaints from neighbors about several local residential projects, council quickly (and unanimously) passed a zoning change that prevents homeowners from building "double basements" for single family homes. Given the high value of Aspen real estate, there have recently been projects approved that had allowed 40 foot deep excavations for two sub-grade levels. Frankly, I see this as a unique solution to the mass, scale and FAR issues we face - by putting more square footage underground, it cannot be seen from the street. Council saw it otherwise. After publicly and emotionally extolling the time-honored "how much space do these people need" diatribe, the mayor attempted to soften his stance and deemed the zoning change more to lessen construction impacts than to control the size of basements. But then he said the ordinance doesn't go far enough. Next he wants to limit horizontal subgrade build-outs.
Even city staff acknowledges the concerns with such a regulation and its imperfect language. For example, imagine split-level homes and those that are constructed on a steep grade. The new 15 foot basement depth limit will quickly become a problem. But instead of being methodical and deliberate, council rushed ahead anyway. Even community development director Chris Bendon admits, "This is new territory so there's a pretty strong likelihood that we'll be back in front of you in a year or two, evolving it forward, based on that experience. Ready - Fire - Aim. Again.
HYDRO: THE PLANT THAT WILL NEVER DIE
In its review of the 2015 budget, council was enlightened by concerned citizens that $750K had been earmarked for the "Thomas Reservoir Outfall Drainline," city-speak for the tail-race that would all but complete the shelved Castle Creek Energy Center/Hydro Plant. Yep, despite no direction from council (quite the opposite -- council tabled the hydro plant in April), city staff and the water department continue to push forward with the project. This $750K expenditure was presented to council in late October as an emergency drainline with massive public safety implications. City utilities director Dave Hornbacher even went so far as to tell council that according to a state inspection, the reservoir as it stands today, presents a "significant hazard." And council fell for it. For a week or so, it seemed the shuttered hydro plant was effectively being brought back to life, with council's tacit yet ignorant approval.
Then, citizens again got involved, admonishing council for its lack of questioning staff's advocacy of this huge expenditure, its non-request of the referenced dam inspector's report and most importantly, its lack of basic curiosity about the "pro-hydro plant" advocacy it was spoon-fed by staff, which turned out to be a load of malarkey, or in other words, bold faced lies.
In the end, after more public outcry, council was "re-informed" by staff that the state is indeed NOT telling the city to complete its drainline (there actually already is one), nor is this drainline necessary for safe operations of the reservoir. Caught in a big lie, Hornbacher was forced to back-pedal to correct the record. He had initially been asked by council about other options but gave none, just an empassioned infomercial on the desperate need for this drainline. For now, it doesn't appear that the water department will get the big bucks from council for this particular project at this time, especially after the lies were revealed. But keep in mind, the completion of the hydro plant is a HUGE priority for city staff, as evidenced by the lengths they will go to keep this thing alive behind council's back and even by lying to their very faces. Remember, the city continues to store the $1.6 million custom turbine they commissioned for the hydro plant in 2007 instead of selling it.
The facts: Citizens have spoken, the NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) has spoken, and council has voted, but Barwick and his staff continue unabated with efforts and expenditures to complete the hydro plant.
The Red Ant predicts that the green-at-any-cost zealots are gearing up for the May 2015 municipal election where they will go to great lengths to replace both Dwayne Romero and Adam Frisch on council, thereby paving the way to a council vote which will breathe life once again into the hydro plant. They're already writing to the papers, lobbying for another (presumably binding) vote. I'm afraid it's coming, folks.
RUBEY PARK: NO DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Did ya hear? We're getting a new bus station. A HUGE new bus station. Right smack dab in the center of town. Aspen's Rubey Park bus station is slated to undergo a massive overhaul in 2015 to the tune of nearly $8 million. (The funding sources: $3.9 million from the Elected Officials Transportation Committee of Aspen, Snowmass and Pitkin County, $2 million from a federal highway administration grant, $1 million from a Colorado Dept of Transportation grant, and $500K each from the city of Aspen and RFTA.)
With all this money, we'll get two new buildings on the existing site, a remodel of the current building, new bathrooms and RFTA offices, all connected by a single roof. Oh, and did I mention, parking for TWENTY-EIGHT buses. Yep, 28. As Aspen Times columnist Andy Stone calls it, "Aspen's Grand Central bus-a-palooza." (Read it HERE)
All of this ugliness will be right in the center of downtown -- with council's blessing! Stone correctly points out (because surely our elected officials have no clue) that most cities do not utilize prime real estate for the creation of "a pedestal in a place of honor so all can worship at the Shrine of Mass Transit." Rather, "buses should run through town, stop for passengers and then move on. The bus terminal - which is an industrial operation - gets tucked away somewhere convenient and, as much as possible, out of sight." Ya think?!
I almost forgot to mention that a massive snowmelt system has been deemed appropriate for the re-vamped Rubey Park bus station. Apparently, staff feels that a snowmelt system is more efficient that shoveling and plowing. If you are a homeowner in Aspen, you (and your developer) have been claiming this for years, however the city takes great glee in extracting punitive REMP (Renewable Energy Mitigation Program) fees for allowing you this luxury. Never mind that snowmelt systems easily reduce the energy consumed to remove snow. Consider: labor driving from down valley to shovel snow in Aspen all day, loading the snow into an idling dump truck which then goes out of town to a snow dump where it pays $7/cubic yard to dump the snow, and the labor/truck returns down valley). In contrast, snowmelt systems reduce the number of diesel-burning vehicles and associated traffic congestion, reduce CO emissions by employing a natural gas-burning boiler, and create a far longer lifecycles for the snow-melted concrete. Once again, for the city, it's green-at-any-cost for you, despite this making no common or financial sense. But while snowmelt's not ok for you, it's absolutely a-ok for the new Rubey Park!
(A Red Ant reader reports that his project requested a waiver on REMP fees for a building that cannot remove snow from a concrete mezzanine to either the alley or the sidewalk. The city said no dice. The bid for the snowmelt system was $35K, but the REMP fee would have been $180K. A $35K common sense solution quickly became a $215K cost and the project was abandoned. His snow still is being removed manually, then trucked away.)
I'm afraid this one is a fait accompli. And it's a glaring example of what happens, according to Stone, when a "part-time amateur council" bends powerless to the whims of Aspen's "full-time professional staff." I wholeheartedly agree. This is going to be BIG, UGLY and in the center of town for the next 30+ years. Swell. Nice legacy, council.
CLAPPER BEAYS ITTNER DESPITE RECORD OF ELDER ABUSE
The Red Ant was shocked and saddened when current county commissioner Rob Ittner was recently defeated in his re-election bid for county commissioner. Previous commissioner Patti Clapper is now back on the BOCC after a 4-year hiatus. Her re-election is not without controversy, however, and this illustrates just how Aspen evaluates its candidates for elected office. Clapper ran on a no-growth, anti-development platform, and added that, as a registered nurse, she was particularly focused on the community's mental health issues.
In an anonymous tip to The Red Ant (and to the local papers, it turns out), it seems that Clapper's career as an RN came to an abrupt halt in 1999 when she was suspended by the state board of nursing for 2 years. According to the disciplinary action, Clapper "willfully or negligently acted in a manner inconsistent with the health or safety of persons under her care" and "negligently or willfully practiced nursing in a manner which fails to meet generally accepted standards for such nursing practice" while caring for a local 83-year-old man in 1996 who later died. Clapper keeps her license current to this day, however, since she has never remedied the conditions set forth by the state, she cannot practice nursing, telling the Aspen Times recently "I've kept my license because I worked so hard to get it. To try and start all over again would be impossible." Now that's just silly. The probation and conditions are imminently do-able. But the accused infractions (such as not responding to her patient's pager calls, among others) are, according to sources, grossly understated. Is her work history doing 3-4 odd jobs simultaneously over the past 4 years when not on the BOCC because the small medical community in Aspen is aware of this mess and simply wouldn't hire her under any circumstances? (She admits that she will be a "full-time county commissioner" and that she needs the money: a $75K annual salary for Pitkin County commissioners.)
The Red Ant regrets receiving this information after sending out the election primer (however I did endorse Ittner), but it seems that Aspen voters do not care about character issues (as if we didn't already know this), and instead they react to party-line attacks in a specifically non-partisan election. Clapper supporters widely criticized Rob Ittner for holding - not hosting, but holding - candidate events for Republican candidates and officials over the years at his restaurant. Never mind that holding events at a restaurant is just plain good business, Rob also held events for, among other Dems, Bill Clinton and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper at Rustique. But the Aspen voters said "no" to the well-liked community leader and businessman. It is such a shame to lose Rob's fair-minded and well-informed voice on the BOCC. Stop in and see Rob at Rustique, and thank him for his service. He did a very good job.
TO BE CONTINUED....Wow, it seems I have a lot to say in this issue and I'm not even close to being finished! Most of these sad tales wind their way back to one person: city manager Steve Barwick. I'll tie it all together, I promise! Go enjoy your turkey leftovers and your holiday weekend (especially the early-season skiing!!) and I will send part 2 sometime next week!