Archived Ants
Friday
Apr172015

ISSUE #114: Don't be HesitANT to Vote!

"Every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods." -- H.L. Mencken

 "I never voted for anybody.  I always voted against."  -- W.C. Fields

FREE MONEY

Gotta start off with something positive.  Don't forget to collect your $50 food tax refund.  Deadline is April 15.  HERE is the form.

                                                  * * * * * * *

The lack of enthusiasm for this year's election has been palpable.  In any case, it's still important that we all vote in the May 5th municipal election even when it's akin to having one's wisdom teeth pulled without anesthetic.  I also see voting as, among other things, an act that upholds my right to complain about the outcome. 

 My feelings are changing as election day approaches, however.  As I've gotten to know the candidates and where they stand on the issues, I am a bit more encouraged than I've been.  But that's not saying a lot.  Mick joining the race was a monsoon on everyone's parade and really threw a wrench in the system, but all is not lost.  Some see his return to council as a fait accompli.  I hope and pray that's not the case.  We just need to be strategic.  Very strategic.  And in this election, there are some very strange bedfellows indeed.

VOTING

Reminder:  this election will be by mail-in ballots only.  Ballots were sent out yesterday, April 13.  You will have yours this week.  Look for it.  Mail-in voting is ripe for election fraud.  If you choose to abstain from voting, please destroy your ballot.  Again DO NOT THROW IT IN THE TRASH AT THE POST OFFICE!!  You will need $0.70 for postage or you can drop your ballot off at city hall.  (Questions regarding voting or your ballot, please call the Aspen City Clerk at 970-429-2687.)  The official election day when votes are counted is Tuesday, May 5. 

I've gone to the ACRA Candidate Forum.  I've read the local papers' candidate interviews.  And in most cases, I have met with the candidates themselves.  In other words, I've done my research.  Why wait.  Vote now and be done with it.  Here's how and why:

 

REFERENDUM 1 - VOTE NO

Referendum 1 is the "no variance" ballot measure that seeks to remove Aspen city council's flexibility on land use applications by subjecting variances affecting the mass and scale of buildings in the commercial core to a public vote.

I get it - the whole horse-trading exercise in the wee hours of the morning between council and developers has grown old.  And many of the "deals" have proven more than just a wee bit out of character for Aspen. The proposed charter amendment will take away council's ability to grant variances to 4 key parts of our code:  height, mass, subsidized housing and parking.  The four biggies.  And it only applies to commercial and lodging zones (single-family homes and duplexes are excluded). 

I agree, we should get out of the "governing by variance" business.  But I look at it differently.  If specific variances are so good, then let's codify them so they're available to everyone.  This whole brou-ha-ha is a land use issue so let's change the land use code.  Regardless of what side you're on, the argument comes down to:  CHANGE THE DAMNED LAND USE CODE SO IT APPLIES FAIRLY TO EVERYONE!!  The question is one of process.  This shouldn't be done as a charter amendment.  But don't take my word for it.  I have some unlikely support:

  • Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling: "The charter is Aspen's constitution, and our charter addresses how we govern ourselves.  It is not a document that should be addressing land use, environmental control and zoning issues.  Any group of US citizens who were unhappy with the president and his cabinet for allowing public buildings to be built too massive of tall would not even suggest that the constitution be amended to address such an issue.  It would be dealt with by petitions or through legislative action."  
  • The Aspen Times' Andy Stone: "On one team, we have The People's Choice, the city council (NO on Referendum 1). On the other team, we have We The People, the citizens (YES on Referendum 1).  So do we trust the wisdom of the people? Or is it really the wisdom of the mob?  Remember, it was those same people who, in their collective wisdom, elected the council in the first place.  So, in short, do you trust the untrustworthy council? Or the people who selected that untrustworthy bunch?"

And support from those who see "the law of unintended consequences" lurking once again:

  • Neil Siegel:  And what makes this situation even worse and very bad precedent is that it encourages other single issue groups to bastardize the city charter with provisions cast in concrete that should be the subject of code changes which can be amended and tailored by council as conditions evolve.  It is unquestionably true that the city charter is not the place to vent frustration or pursue personal agendas, but that is exactly what is happening here."

Furthermore, there's a significant loophole in the charter amendment concept.  If someone wants a variance and decides to go for it at the polls, what's to say that the variance-seeker doesn't sweeten the proverbial pot with some sort of bribe, packaged as a "community benefit?"  Horse-trading will continue; it will just wear a different hat. 

MAYOR: VOTE TORRE

In 2013, Steve Skadron and Torre met in the mayoral run-off, which Skadron narrowly won.  2015 marks Torre's 5th run for the office.  If we're rating the candidates on the "good guy" element that so often drives local electoral politics, it's a tie.  Both are friendly, good guys.  Smarts?  Neither will wow you.  So let's move on...

While things with Skadron as mayor have been an improvement over Mick, let's not forget that ANYONE would have been an improvement.  It wasn't a high bar.  Could things get worse with Torre as mayor?  Sure, anything can happen, but I say let's give him a chance.  And consider, there is no love lost between Torre and Mick.  This is important and part of the strategy with Mick running for a council seat.  Mick's candidacy is not to be underestimated.  In the god-awful case that Mick is elected again, Torre will not put up with Mick's pontification, bloviation and rampant BS.  I just don't see Skadron keeping Mick in line for one minute. 

And as far as leadership goes, Skadron has been a disappointment.  He rarely grasps complex issues and often decries citizen input when things get technical, admittedly preferring "hearing about the issues from city staff."  He is solely responsible for adding the Aspen Brewery's proposal  to a citizen committee's list of finalists for the Old Power House, a blatant act of political pandering.  This, in the face of his very own directive that the space not be "handed over to private, commercial or office space use."

Skadron also thinks we should keep building and building and building subsidized housing "because (in his opinion) we need it."  And worst of all, despite years of citizen activism against the hydro plant (CCEC) including an advisory vote to kill the project, Skadron still ignores leading environmentalists and citizens alike with his willingness to complete the project.

Now don't get me wrong, Torre is no panacea.  We disagree on plenty, not the least of which is Referendum 1 (above).  Torre is also an advocate for subsidized commercial space in Aspen (puh-lease), in addition to acknowledging what he sees as "a never ending need for housing."  Torre has vexed me for years, however the specter of Mick back on council makes me open to giving Torre a try this time.

Torre DOES recognize the lack of leadership in city hall and favors greater oversight of city management.  (Those who work in city hall are frightened at the prospect of Torre as mayor - you can bet I like that!!)  His housing priorities are more narrowly focused than just "more" - he wants to see us build for specific demographics and pragmatically states that we need to take care of the inventory we have before we prioritize new construction.  I have had a constructive conversation with Torre about his ideas for "fixing" Centennial and no, he is not advocating a government bailout (phew!).  He wants to provide help, but more along the lines of a loan vs outright gift.  He sees where council MUST have better direction of processes and projects and opposes a new 70,000 sf city hall.  And I particularly like his priority of "protecting our streams, NOT a third try at the hydro plant citizens voted against."  And who can argue with the formation of an advisory board of second homeowners, to whom Torre would like to give a voice?  Furthermore, mystery solved!  HERE is how Torre became just "Torre."

  • The mayor must be elected with 50% + 1 of the votes cast
  • Let's give Torre a chance
  • It's a hedge against Mick being elected to council and trying to run the joint

COUNCIL: "BULLET VOTE" FOR ADAM FRISCH  

I have long espoused the benefits of what's called "bullet voting."  This is a process that makes it more likely that your candidate will be elected when running for one of several openings (in our case, two) amidst a field of competitors.  The theory is to vote for just your favorite candidate, thereby boosting your candidate's total by one with your sole "bullet" vote.  By not voting for another candidate although you are permitted to, your candidate's total increases while others' totals do not.  My "bullet vote" will be for Adam Frisch. 

With this voting strategy, Adam has a solid shot of being elected in the first round on May 5 (45% + 1 vote). That is the goal.  Simply put, we need to get Adam in, especially with Mick lurking in the wings.  To get Adam on council gives us one "friendly," and hopefully, by employing the "bullet vote" strategy, keeps Mick relegated to the run-off.  (I may be crazy to think this, but hope springs eternal...) 

Adam has demonstrated common sense and respect at the council table.  His spirit of collaboration is to be admired.  He comes to meetings prepared.  And most importantly, Adam is accessible.  He reads and responds to inquiries regularly.  This is not a trait found elsewhere on council.  I personally appreciate his willingness to listen, read and ask questions of concerned citizens.  There are issues too numerous to count that come across his transom, and I have found Adam to be a patient and willing ear.  In his four years on council, Adam has gained confidence and perspective; no longer does he take the word of city staff as gospel.  I encourage Adam to keep focusing on his principles.  He CAN become a VERY strong voice for fiduciary responsibility, and we need that now more than ever.  Please, "bullet vote" for Adam.

Now remember, Mick too might just get it done with 45% + 1 on election day - but I sure hope not!  Hopefully people are simply SICK OF MICK (click it for some good laughs)!  But let's not be foolish here - Mick WILL command a lot of votes.  And in a run-off, Mick may still win a seat.  But the June 2 run-off election will focus on just those in contention, and I do see a candidate or two who might be able to give him an honest run for his money!

HONORABLE MENTION:  ANDY ISRAEL

Political newcomer Andy Israel is one of the more interesting candidates to join the fracas in recent years.  An outspoken advocate for Wagner Park, he has long highlighted the limited public access to the park as an example of how the city of Aspen does not act in the best interest of its citizens.  This CPA and Wharton MBA was motivated to run for office because of what he sees as a "unacceptable lack of institutional control" at city hall as evidenced by, among other messes, the parking scandal.  "The numbers don't lie" and "parking scandals don't last 4 years," he states.  As self-proclaimed "deal maker," "problem solver" and "closer," Israel, a dark horse who claims he will "get things done," promises to work to "eliminate confusion and communication breakdowns" in Aspen government.  I welcome Andy to the mix and am pleased and entertained by his refreshing candor.  Oh, and did I mention, he studies the city budget in far more detail than anyone on council.  Plus, he can read a spreadsheet.  And no, this straight-shooter won't take any BS from Mick, Barwick or city staff. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Now some of you are surely puzzled, if not shocked, by my endorsements.  But as I've written, we have no choice but to hedge against Mick.  That has been my driving rationale.  And sometimes that means picking "the least worst" candidate.  Sadly, Mick's candidacy really iced several good community members' campaigns.  Instead of being able to look at the full slate of candidates and ask, "who is the best candidate," Mick's candidacy makes this election one of "who can win?" 

Local activist (and author of Referendum 1) Bert Myrin is parlaying his tenure on P&Z and political capital from a successful "career" in the challenge-city-hall-through-citizen-petitions business into what's shaping up as a very competitive run.  I have worked with Bert (to kill the hydro plant) and know him to be a tireless advocate for his chosen causes.  He's a real muckraker. To say that "Bert cares" is a gross understatement.  Mick (ever the purveyor of revisionist history) has managed to co-opt Myrin in this election by glomming on to the momentum of Referendum 1.  They're being seen as a package deal. And this alliance makes people nervous. 

Long-time community and civic volunteer Marcia Goshorn , former APCHA director and councilman Tom McCabe, and bartender and former coffee shop owner (Parallel 15) Keith Goode got lost in this season's election shuffle.  While Marcia and I disagree on subsidized housing issues, she has a proven track record of commitment to important civic boards, including the Citizens Budget Task Force.  Her perspective informs her belief that the resort and community are NOT against one another, rather, they are dependent upon each other.  Tom, as a former locally-serving business owner, laments the lack of affordable lodging and commercial space for business in Aspen.  Keith, while a newcomer to the election game, has served on the city's Planning & Zoning board.  This is truly valuable experience given the land use issues of the day.  He brings a unique perspective that highlights the close interface between those in the food & beverage industry and our visitors.  These candidates deserve our respect and gratitude for throwing their hats into the ring.  It's more than I've ever done.

  • In order to be elected, a candidate must garner 45% + 1 of the votes on May 5.  With 7 candidates running for two seats, the likelihood for a run-off is great.
  • On May 5th, if only one candidate passes the 45% +1 threshold, that candidate is elected and the next two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to a run off on June 2.  The candidate with the highest number of votes on June 2 wins.
  • On May 5th, if no one hits the 45% + 1 threshold, the four highest vote-getters advance to the run-off on June 2nd, where the two highest vote-getters win.
  • The run-off election is Tuesday, June 2.  Ballots will be mailed out on May 11 with early voting beginning on May 18 at City Hall.  If you know you are going to be out of town on June 2, please complete the absentee form HERE.   Check the box indicating that you need a run-off ballot.  Questions?  970-429-2685

THE RED ANT CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE
The Red Ant sent each of the candidates a questionnaire several weeks ago that touches on issues of the day.  Every candidate responded and for that I am grateful.  The questions are as follows, with notable excerpts from individual responses.   Links to the candidates' full responses are at the end of this issue.

Where do you stand on the "no variance" ballot measure that, in many cases, strips city council's responsibility for granting development variances and waivers?  Should the city charter (Aspen's "constitution") be changed or is this matter better suited to a change to Aspen's land use code?  Please explain.

  • Skadron:  I oppose the ballot issue.  It's a land use code item that does not belong in the charter. The charter is the framework of our government and should not have land use items attached to it.  I believe the amendment undermines the principles of representative democracy.
  • Torre:  I do support Ref 1.  I think it's unfortunate that it has come to a citizen referendum, but I too want a land use process that reflects community values and promotes positive development opportunity.
  • Myrin:  The red herring here is the false choice between direct democracy and representative democracy.  A YES vote on Referendum 1 upholds representative government.  Our representative government doesn't negotiate land deals; it follows the rules and changes the rules for everyone if needed.
  • Frisch:  Oppose.  The real issue is that the maximum allowed height was not addressed in the land use code soon enough, not the approval of variances.  I have asked the supporters of the referendum for a single example of a building in town that was granted a height variance that is out of line with community values - it has been over a week and not a single example.  Again, the buildings in town that are 'big' were all approved under a prior Council that did not downzone soon enough.
  • Goshorn:  The land use codes have needed to be revised in a responsible manner for years, but the councils have not been willing to do that.  The ballot question is not something to be feared.
  • Israel:  I signed the petition.  I plan to vote yes in favor of Ref  1.  I don't agree with many of the recent decisions made by various councils.  I have lost faith in the process.
  • Goode:  I believe that this (variances) is something that should go to the voters.
  • Mick:  I am more concerned with the proposals to alter the land use code to subsidized high end development.  The need for luxury lodging is not well established.  The variance "process" encourages real estate speculation.
  • McCabeI am not in favor of the "no variance" ballot measure.  It is akin to using a pile driver to do the work of a hammer.

Steve Barwick is the city manager.  As such, he reports directly to council and, per the city charter, is responsible for running the administration of the city, not developing or directing policy.  What will you do to foster greater accountability from the city manager?  How will you change the focus to Council-directed policy as opposed to simply "playing catch" with policy initiatives that originate with the city manager?

  • Skadron:  I disagree with the premise.  The question implies that the city manager is developing and directing policy and that's not the case.
  • Torre:  I will bring leadership and accountability to city hall.  I will focus council for clear policy directives.  I will then follow up with the city manager and staff to enumerate and execute service and outcome measures.
  • Goshorn:  The buck stops with the city council.
  • Israel:  If I am elected I will push for an immediate audit of the CofA books and accounting systems by a legitmate 3rd party auditor. Projects and events get pushed so far up the ladder before council is even aware of them. The city manager reports to council, not the other way around.
  • Frisch:  The City Council is a policy board.  It is their job to set goals and objectives on behalf of the community with a long term vision in mind.  The City Manager is responsible for executing those goals. On Monday, April 13th, Council is participating in its first formal 360 review of the City Manager since I joined Council in June of 2011.  This should have been my fourth; standard operating procedure is on an annual basis.  I wish I had a valid reason for this not being done until now, but I do not - no excuses.
  • Goode:  Council each year takes time to create a top ten goals that they hope to achieve.  I would hope to use these as our base for direction.
  • Mick:  The city manager should be subject to annual personnel review by the city council including a "360" review by his peers and subordinates.

Surely you are familiar with Aspen's parking scandal, discovered in 2014.  While a recent audit of the city's internal controls has been presented to the current council with recommended steps for process improvements and evaluation of risks, how do you feel about requiring a quarterly review of the city's actual financial condition?  What about the employment of an auditor who reports to council (not staff) and has a statutory obligation to make reports to council and the public? Please explain. 

  • Skadron:  I would support consideration of retaining an auditor to report to council.
  • MyrinWe need to bring in outside, independent and transparent auditors to review the city's financial controls.
  • Goshorn:  In 2008 I was a member of a 26 person citizens budget task force that gave the city a list of recommendations that included regular audits.  The recommendation was not acted on.  The city needs regular oversight now as it did then.
  • McCabe:  The difficulty with anything as complex as the city budget is that the expertise of the professionals is typically beyond the experience of those elected to oversee it.
  • TorreI will do whatever it takes to ensure the fiscal competency of the city.  I support community oversight and if necessary, outside evaluation.
  • Goode:  Hiring an auditor shouldn't be out of the question, but tightening the controls that are already in place might be a better solution.
  • MickThe City of Denver has an elected auditor.  I would not go that far but it is worth considering a direct report to council and periodically changing auditors.  I like the idea of reports to the public and I believe city financial data should be online.

The FERC permit for the Castle Creek Energy Center (CCEC) hydro plant was not renewed in February.  Is there ANY circumstance in which you would vote as a member of council to continue spending money on the CCEC.  Yes or no? Please explain.

  • Skadron:  Yes. One circumstance to support further expenditures would be a citizen petition to re-establish the energy center program. 
  • Frisch:  No.  For years, I have been clear and consistent in my comments that the community has spoken.
  • TorreI will not be supporting continuing with the CCEC.
  • McCabe:  No.  It is not OK to spend more money unless the citizens demand it by way of a vote.
  • MyrinAspen should sell the turbine ASAP.  This would put to rest continuing to spend money on the CCEC.
  • Israel:  I would never vote to continue the CCEC.  I don't want to hear about it or see any time or money dedicated to it.
  • Goode:  No.  The community has spoken very clearly about their opinion of the hydro plant.
  • MickNo.  My side lost the election and I do not intend to pursue the license.  

The APCHA housing inventory is comprised of over 2800 rental and owned units.  There is great speculation of widespread non-compliance.  In order to better understand our current and future subsidized housing needs, would you support an independent and comprehensive audit of the entire portfolio to determine who lives there, where they work and whether or not they comply?  If not, why not?

  • Skadron:  Speculation is different than the evidence which suggests widespread compliance.
  • Goshorn:  Speculation is forming of a theory without evidence and has a life of its own.  The housing board has already begun a discussion of how we could accomplish an audit.
  • Israel:  I too believe there is a lot of non-compliance with APCHA.  I am in favor of an audit or review of this entity conducted by a different party than the financial auditor.
  • TorreI believe that we should have a compliance component to our program, even if this is best realized by an outside source.
  • Goode:  Yes, I've spoken with the new housing director about this already.  Even if there is only 10% out of compliance, that's 280 units!
  • MickAPCHA owners are required to certify their eligibility periodically under penalty of perjury.  The affidavit requires affirmation that the owner knows the rules and is in compliance.
  • McCabe:  I convinced the council and commissioners (years ago) to increase the APCHA legal budget by a factor of 6, for 5 years, so APCHA could chase down the more persistent rumors of cheating.  This provided APCHA the resources to prosecute some headline-generating cheaters and to develop better investigative tools.
  • Frisch:  Contrary to popular belief, the APCHA staff and board have long suggested a review.  The policy suggestion seemed to run out of steam prior when it comes to the elected officials (we need to remember the Pitkin County Commissioners have an equal say on policy direction regarding APCHA housing issues).

Reports of APCHA housing inventory in physical decline have been attributed to (among other things) speculation about the lack of adequate HOA reserves and deferred maintenance over the years by HOAs.  Would you support a legally mandated level for reserve accounts at every APCHA HOA?  If not, how do you envision the prevention of further decline of these valuable community assets? 

  • Skadron:  Moving forward with new properties, I would not be opposed to further deed restrictions mandating a level of capital reserves.
  • MyrinCouncil and staff have been focused on deferred maintenance of our resort bed base and not nearly as much attention has been paid to this equally important issue.  If we are intent on maintaining our community, we must work on solutions to sustain our affordable housing inventory, not just building more.
  • Israel:  I am in support of a mandated HOA reserve.
  • McCabe:  On the ownership side, almost all deed restricted homes (condos) are members of an independent, non-profit HOA.  Existing HOAs falling under the deed restrictions of APCHA cannot legally be required to comply with any level of reserve account funding by local political jurisdictions, which includes APCHA, the city or the county.
  • Frisch:  Not only would I, I already have, both on an individual basis as well as through my leadership on the Housing Frontiers Group.  With Frontier's lead, capital reserves are now mandated for all AH projects from Burlingame-II and going forward, including AH built by private developers. 
  • GoodeI don't think that's out of the question to set a baseline for reserves for every HOA.  What I would question is who is responsible for funding that?  The new tenants to old units?
  • MickThe issue is not confined to APCHA housing.  It is common for HOAs to struggle with maintenance of capital assets.  Some APCHA units were not properly built for this climate.  I believe the city has a role in helping analyze long term capital replacement needs and requiring adequate reserves.
  • Torre:  I do believe in mandated standards for HOA management of APCHA housing.  Before we are building more housing, we need to iron out the wrinkles that we have experienced as our AH program enters it's 40's.

The city of Aspen has a $100+ million budget in 2015.  Just because we have it, should we spend it?  Where do you see waste/abuse?

Please be specific in your evaluation of the City's overall financial condition and budget priorities.

  • Skadron:  I agree. Money should not be spent just because we have it. I have expressed that to various departments within the city. City projects are scrutinized by the council and there are times when council directs staff to re-study a project because of the money.
  • McCabe:  To some degree I am sure that fees are used to get around the TABOR restrictions.
  • Torre:  The $616K intersection project at Gondola Plaza and the proposed $2.7 million Castle Creek Bridge narrowing are issues.  And the fact that this council is spending $2.8 mill for architectural designs on 2 options on over 70,000sq.ft. for a new city hall. I think we need a revised budget process that involves a more public friendly explanation of budgeting and reconciliation.
  • Goshorn:  The continual studies by consultants that cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars are repetitive and in many cases unnecessary and often placed on shelves and ignored.
  • Israel:  I see waste and abuse everywhere.  I see a culture of excess at city hall.  Just because we have "an embarrassment of riches" doesn't mean we need to make foolish decisions about money.
  • Frisch:  To add a bit of detail, the total approved appropriations in 2015 is $124,206,420.  Having said that, the total revenue in the General Fund, which is the only part of the budget that City Council totally controls, is 'only' $24.4 million.  The rest of the monies are voter supported initiatives.  The recent parking scandal is a good example of the City needing to be extra diligent in financial practices.  The fact was with increasing revenues from the department, it became less critical to double check the books.  The generosity of the community is based on very prudent management of our vast resources.
  • GoodeIf we decide to set up a rainy day fund then that is something I believe should go to the voters.
  • Mick:  The $100 million is an attractive political target. Reserves should be increased in anticipation of the next crash.  Our reliance on a fairly narrow, volatile segment of the upper end of the economy makes us suceptible to boom and bust.  I agree that the city's present buildings should be considered first for housing city departments.

What is your position on fees vs. taxes?  Under what conditions would you support adding/increasing fees to cover the cost of government services that were previously covered by taxes? Do you support independently raising revenues on your own authority or do you believe that major changes in funding should follow the spirit of TABOR and go to the voters?

  • Frisch:  While many may think a fee and a tax are the same (money ends up in the government's coffers), it is important to know that fees can be voted on and changed at the Council table.  From a policy standpoint though, moving revenue collections from a 'tax' to a 'fee' for the purpose of avoiding a public vote is something I would not support.
  • Skadron:   I support compliance with TABOR and all laws and court decisions relating to raising revenues.  As in the bag case, fees are authorized under the law under certain circumstances.
  • IsraelI'm for taxes rather than fees.   I believe that major funding changes should go to the voters.
  • GoodeMajor changes in funding should go to the voters.  If we are lowering taxes but increasing fees, what difference does it make to the individual? I'm not a fan of changing wording to confuse people.
  • TorreI do support public input and votes on questions of taxation.

How do you want City staff to report to you on their progress and accomplishments? Do you think the City would benefit from a set of publicly-produced outcome-based performance measures that show how the City is addressing the demand for services? Aspen does not produce any such reports for Council or the community even though such reports are considered "best practices" by every professional government association (International City and Council Manager Association, Government Finance Officers Association, American Society for Public Administration, etc.).

  • SkadronThe City annually produces a Goals & Outcomes Measures report that is made available to council and public for review.
  • MyrinTransparency is important in building trust.  We need to get away from the fear of "not invented here."  As special a place as we consider Aspen to be, our problems are likely not unique and have been addressed elsewhere.  We should continually look to discover and adopt best practices.
  • TorreI do support performance measures to ensure that public services and programs are meeting community expectations. I believe we can improve the communication between citizens, council and staff.
  • McCabe:  Pretty charts are cool but the over-use of Power Point is a dead giveaway that staff doesn't have a lot to offer so they attempt to distract with pretty pictures.

The city plans to build 70,000+ sf of municipal office space in the near future.  Given that the costs (currently estimated at $40 million) are to be borne by the Aspen taxpayer, how do you justify this?  What steps will you take to ensure community buy-in?  Would you support an "up/down" vote on the expenditure?

  • SkadronAt this point the city is simply exploring the replacement of existing space plus some small increments of public space required by code and additional space for the Police Department. The city is not trying to increase its footprint. If bonding backed by a property tax pledge is required, I would support an up/down vote on the expenditure.
  • TorreI believe we should take care of the municipal needs we have like the Police Department relocation, and other office space losses. We should build on the Zupancis property on Main, but we do not need 70,000 sq.ft. This council chose not 1, but 2 of the largest options to take to design level.  I definitely would do every effort to reach out for community participation and buy-in.
  • MyrinOf the proposed developments on the horizon, this may be the largest runaway project without public buy-in.  I support an up/down vote by the electorate as the final checkpoint.
  • Goshorn:  This is another situation that the voter buy-in needs to be based on verifiable facts not assumptions.
  • Frisch:  While the politically expedient answer is "no way," some amount of new space needs to be built; it is a 'necessary evil' for lack of a better term.  Build as small and humble as possible.  I am a proponent of having any new building being located behind Galena Plaza. 
  • IsraelI am totally against the plan for a new city hall.  First of all the $40 million estimate seems very low.  Second, we just gave away a perfectly fine 7,200 sf building to a brewery.
  • McCabe:  Fifteen years ago the city council purchased the Zupancis property with it in mind as the location for the offices that were badly needed at the time.  The city needs decent workspace for its employees.  That is way overdue.
  • GoodeThe town is in need of more space, as well as updated facilities.  Public outreach has already started and Aspen should have the right to choose by voting if this is the direction we should go in.
  • MickI don't think we should vote on the "need" for new police space or relocation of existing departments, those are necessities.  Some things that might require a vote would include a new building behind city hall that is park space.

To read the candidates' responses in their entirety, and I encourage you to do so, click their name:

      Steve Skadron     Torre     Adam Frisch          Andy Israel     

          Bert Myrin       Marcia Goshorn       Tom McCabe   

                    Keith Goode         Mick Ireland 

 

 

Monday
Mar232015

ISSUE #113: The ANTithesis of Optimism

"What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step,too."           -- Chuck Palahniuk 

BACK TO THE FUTURE? AN ELECTION NIGHTMARE 

May 5 looms like a dark cloud on the Aspen horizon.  You see, it's municipal election time yet again in the People's Republic of Aspen and we might just be in for a doozy.  Every two years, two of the four sitting city council members must run for re-election since they serve 4-year terms, and the mayoral post, with just a 2-year term, is always up for grabs.  This cycle, sitting councilmen Dwayne Romero and Adam Frisch are up - Frisch has thrown his hat into the ring, however Romero has elected not to do so, citing family obligations and his professional commitments in Snowmass.  Steve Skadron will run for re-election following his first 2-year term as mayor.

Now here's where it gets juicy: the old dragon is back.  At least he wants to come back.  Former mayor Mick Ireland is running for one of the two council seats.  His platform?  "It's always about the local economy," Ireland told the Aspen Times.  "About not letting the real estate, second home, residential industry basically snuff the local economy and the tourist economy."  In other words, class warfare!  Imagine that!?  It's been quite nice having him out of local government these past two years but it's widely speculated that the erstwhile tax attorney who has made elected office his profession in truth really needs the $22,000 annual stipend and healthcare that accompanies a council seat.  The good news, judging by online comments after the announcement of Ireland's candidacy, is that Aspen is indeed quite Sick of Mick (see website from 2011) but one cannot overlook the sad fact that the guy has won every election where he's been on the ballot.  Mick's controversial tenure in local office is sure to bring out some entertaining letters to the editor in coming weeks, and leave it to Neil Siegel to put it perfectly:

"The true architect of the art museum and other grotesque, out-of-scale buildings is asking voters for (at least) four more years in office.  No amount of gibberish on the part of the former mayor can erase from the cityscape his legacy, and Aspen will have to endure it for generations to come.  That alone should be a disqualifier for future public office.  And let's not forget his complete turnaround that placed a knife in the back of the broad consensus for the Lift 1A development, dooming an opportunity that has come and gone.  Other than his own ego, it is difficult to discern what type of "growth" he truly favors.  What makes the candidacy of our former mayor so utterly stuffed with hypocrisy is that he has the gall to contend that his past mistakes are actually a plus.  Simply put, going forward, Aspen should not be punished for any more of Mick Ireland's mistakes."  God help us.

Only a tad less nauseating (but pretty nauseating none-the-less) is the return of Torre, the one-named tennis instructor who has twice graced us as a councilman.  This time, Torre is making his fifth run for mayor.  The Torre vs Skadron match-up is notable given that the two squared off just two years ago in a run-off for mayor where Skadron narrowly prevailed.  This time, Torre has been quick to jump on the "no variances" platform championed by Mick Ireland and others in the community who have spearheaded the effort to get a measure on the ballot that will relieve council of its responsibilities to grant development waivers; instead, those requesting variances will have their request determined by a vote of the people.  My early prediction is that this one is a toss-up, and the momentum is frighteningly with the "no variance" crowd.

Look for further details on each of the candidates in the next issue of The Red Ant, including answers to a brief survey.  In the meantime, prepare to be uninspired.  Here are the names of the other candidates for city council:

  • Andy Israel (former commercial real estate professional with a Wharton MBA who currently operates AspenSpin, a local blog)
  • Bert Myrin (attorney and seven-year member of the city's planning and zoning commission, and the architect of "Keep Aspen Aspen," the "no variance" ballot measure)
  • Tom McCabe (former Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority director)
  • Marcia Goshorn (Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority board member)
  • Keith Goode (planning and zoning commission member)

VOTING DETAILS

The May 5, 2015, municipal election will be a mail ballot election.  Registered voters in the city of Aspen will receive an official ballot at their mailing address on their voter registration.  To register, confirm or correct your mailing address, visit www.GoVoteColorado.com

*** If you expect to be absent from your mailing address from April 13 - May 5, you may request to vote absentee-by-mail.  HERE is the link for an application for an Absentee Voter Ballot.  Please note: The Post Office will NOT forward ballots!

And be advised, should either of the races necessitate a run-off, that election will be held on June 2.  Details tbd, but I'll let you know.  For further information, contact the city clerk 970-429-2687

A RED ANT PRIMER ON THE "NO VARIANCE" BALLOT MEASURE

Frustrated by wheelings and dealings between city council and various developers over the years (think: Art Museum and other "settlements" that enabled property owners to negotiate waivers on mass and scale, parking, subsidized housing mitigation, etc.), local anti-development, no-growth zealots seek to punish city council (and stifle development) by changing the city charter so as to remove council's ability to grant any variance to a land use application in the commercial core (CC), commercial (C-1), Service/Commercial/Industrial (SCI), neighborhood commercial (NC), mixed use (MU), lodge (L), commercial lodge (CL), lodge overlay (LO) and lodge preservation (LP) zone districts.  Some exclusions apply, including single family homes and duplexes.

This is clearly a land use issue and the solution is not with a change to city charter.  It has long been known that Aspen's land use code is ridiculously complex and doesn't apply equally to all comers, yet the sitting council did nothing until the 11th hour to even address making the long-overdue changes.  (In the end, they elected to do nothing, but they did discuss it once the "no variance" measure was officially on the ballot.)  As a result, the "Keep Aspen Aspen" campaign has built significant momentum and is well positioned to prevail in May.  If this happens, all variance requests in the aforementioned categories will be put to a public vote.  In other words, the local voters will decide property owners' fates based on the "what's in it for me" mentality that so pervades the local electorate.  Think: mob-ocracy.

 In The Red Ant's humble opinion, as reflected in an email I received from a reader, the need to update and simplify the land use code is "up against people with a compulsive desire to make rules, to control what isn't theirs, and presume they have the greater wisdom, in this case not only among their contemporaries but among all yet to come."  In other words, the class warfare-waging element of the Aspen voter base.  More to follow on this sorry state of affairs.

THE WAR ON DEVELOPMENT IS ON: DRACONIAN NEW FEES

Late on a Friday afternoon, the city of Aspen's community development department sent out a seemingly innocuous email -- its March newsletter.  The contents of the newsletter, however, shocked and awed local architecture and development businesses.   Citing council's November 2014 approval of new development fees for the utility department "to offset the costs of the department's plans review and inspection functions for new permits," the new fees were presented as thus:

For MINOR REVIEW of new construction (projects with 100 - 10,000sf of affected area) the utilities development permit fee which had previously been $0 (subsidized by existing water customers and reviewed by existing staff), increased to $1.50/sf with an additional review fee of 65% of the permit fee.

Yep, so a 5000sf house would be charged as follows:


Permit fee:    5000 x $1.50 = $7500

Review fee:    $7500 x 65% = $4875

Total Utilities Development Fee:  $7500 - $4875 = $12,375 (in the past, this total would have been $0)

And yes, this fee is in addition to the "water tap" fees. 

For MAJOR REVIEW of new construction (projects with more than 10,000sf of affected area), the utilities development permit fee which had previously been based on a proposal and invoicing from the city water engineer and reviewed by existing city staff, increased to $0.75/sf with an additional review fee of 65% of the permit fee.

For a BASIC PROJECT (remodel, repair, addition to existing structure), the utilities development review and permit fees were previously subsidized by existing water customers and performed by existing city staff (smaller projects) and/or for larger projects, an outside engineering consultant was used, which developers/owners would paid for directly. With the NEW fee structure, the addition of 0.01 to 0.05 ECUs (Equivalent Customer Units - a measure of average consumption of either water or electricity) will cost a flat rate of $50. The addition of more than 0.05 ECUs now costs $59.09 per 0.05 ECU.

How did these significant fee increases sneak through?  They were buried in a massive 2015 Budget Development packet that council approved as part of Fee Ordinance #36 late last fall.  See it on page 28 HERE.  Recall that several years ago (in one of Mick's administrations), the city embarked on an initiative to cover the full cost of every service activity with fee revenue.  Isn't it enough that we pay their salaries?  At the time, they published a 600+ page budget book that covered their analysis of each fee-generating activity.  Plain and simple: this is the city's initiative to generate even more income without having to go to the voters.  (Council can approve fees without having to deal with TABOR - the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.)  What do you want to bet that this fee increase was never even discussed by council before they voted to enact it as of January 1 of this year?  It certainly raised no objection nor was it covered in the papers.  The city exacts so much from us in fees, it makes one wonder what tax money is used for anymore!

NARROW THE CASTLE CREEK BRIDGE? REALLY?!

In yet another act of abject stupidity, city hall has recently brought forth plans to NARROW the traffic lanes on the Castle Creek bridge.  Yes, you are reading that correctly.  The idea stems from the Open Space and Trails board and Aspen's powerful ride-your-bike-everywhere lobby, and the unconscionable details were recently developed by the city's engineering department and presented to council.  The gist of the plan is to spend $2.7 million (in reality it will surely double) to remove 1' from each of the two lanes of the Castle Creek bridge (Aspen's primary access artery and already the source of massive traffic congestion) in order to widen the existing pedestrian walkway to 8'.  The concept is to make the walkway a "multi-use" corridor for both pedestrians and bicyclists. Currently, bicyclists, even though they have a dedicated bike path through the Marolt property and onto Hopkins Avenue, illegally use the "pedestrians only" walkway to cross the bridge to conveniently access the West End and this is quite dangerous.  Ya think?!  

Thankfully council has sent the foolhardy proposal back to the engineering department for further public input as well as traffic studies, but it is rather unbelievable that anyone would even consider constricting the entrance to Aspen!  The plan, originally slated to be snuck past council for a spring 2015 start date, should be completely tossed and started over from scratch.  To enable cycling enthusiasts (who do not represent the majority of our town and never will) to dictate a major change to traffic flow into and out of Aspen is idealistic at best.  For now, the plan has been pushed back to spring 2016, but is being overseen by the same city employee who oversaw the intersection "remodel" at Gondola Plaza.  Remember how well THAT worked out with the "face-planters" that, under the guise of serving as stormwater drains, ate up a not only a well-used bus stop but several unwitting pedestrians?!  Keep your eye on this one. 

POWER HOUSE OR PARTY BARN?

City council is set to choose the least worst of five applicants for tenancy at the 7200sf city-owned Old Power House where the Aspen Art Museum used to be.  Their idealistic goals are to give the space to the non-profit entity most in need of space that would reach the broadest base of the community.  I spoke out at a recent work session about the applicants and their proposed uses for the facility.  If the city "needs" 70,000sf of new in-town office space (or so they say), how can they possibly justify giving a city-owned facility of this size away? Needless to say, despite the obvious financial offsets to the future tenant, I am none too keen on establishing the Old Power House as some sort of rental "party barn" where any and all comers can lease the space for large throw-downs, not the least of which is because the facility is located in a densely populated residential neighborhood.  Mine.

Here is what I said to council:  "The Old Power House, located at the junction of South Mill Street, Gibson Avenue, North Spring Street, and Red Mountain Road, is also uniquely situated in a residential neighborhood that, despite its density, enjoys a remarkable quality of life and quiet enjoyment.  For well over 30 years, the neighborhood has grown up around this historic structure. Unlike those who foolishly buy penthouses above bars and amidst restaurants and then complain when the noise is too great, those in this neighborhood have enjoyed a collegial, quiet and neighborly relationship with the Power House's last tenant, the Aspen Art Museum.  The Art Museum operated during business hours and on the rare occasions when they held evening events on-site, they notified the entire neighborhood in advance by mail with details on the event, its nature and especially the timeframe when we might expect to hear noise emanating from its property.  There were few if any problems because the events did not run late into the evening.  We are sorry that they have moved.  The Art Museum was a great neighbor and steward of the Power House.

The applications before you are certainly diverse. And I respect your attempts to bring some sort of "utopian use" of the facility to the community.  But really.... How about first, do no harm.  There are several infrastructure issues that need to be addressed before ANY group is given a lease. 

  • First, where will people park?  There are just 22 parking spaces on the property.  Furthermore, South Mill Street, Gibson Avenue, North Spring Street and Red Mountain Road all prevent on-street parking, and the junction of the 4 is hardly conducive for a bus stop or for cab/shuttle drop-off.  And don't say "park at Clark's" - we all know Britt the boot guy will put an end to that in no time! 
  • Second, what will the operating hours be, and I point out to you again that the Power House is currently zoned residential (R-30 with a PD overlay).  A STRICT curfew that honors the residential neighborhood needs to be established and set in stone long before any lease is executed.  While there may be a "desire" for "party barn" usage of this facility to offset costs for the occupants, the neighborhood will simply not stand for it. 
  • Third, pedestrian access is troublesome at best at this location. Have you walked the pathway from the Hunter Creek bus stop to the Power House?  Very few pedestrians walk all the way down Gibson to cross at Red Mountain Road and back up the other side; they just cross the hill on Gibson, a steep hill that is icy most of the winter.  I cringe at the thought of kids running across that street to science camp! 
  • And the on-site café issue - is this really necessary?  Again, there is terrible access to the facility and to exacerbate this with an attempt to draw even more people who are stopping by to pick up a pizza is simply ludicrous.  The Art Museum managed to survive (and thrive) without an on-site eatery.

Given the nature of its residential neighborhood location, there are very few optimal uses for the Old Power House.  My personal choice is to spare the community the cost and your desire for 70,000 new square feet of office space in the core and instead choose to house non-in town-essential municipal functions in the 7200sf space: human resources, IT, special events, there are plenty of potential city users.  Heck, even the police department.  But if this body is going to insist on giving 7200 sf of publicly-owned space away, please take into account the inherent challenges of the space as well as the quality of life and quiet enjoyment of those who live nearby. 

Three of the five applicants have BIG plans for BIG events at the Power House: the Gathering Place wants a community center there, GrassRootsTV proposes a nifty archive lounge and larger tv studios - but with a space for large public events for up to 250 people, and the Brewery/Incubator concept brings us an expanded brewery and beer garden coupled with a shared-workspace incubator situation, a tv studio and on-site event planners who hope to lease the facility for public and private events that are expected to raise over $1 million the first year.  No thank you.  Not in a residential neighborhood.

On the other hand, the Red Brick has its sights on performing arts and rehearsal space including a stage for up to 160 people.  Assuming that they can manage the "where to park" and "how to get there" challenges, they have already proven themselves as excellent managers of a city-owned facility that also happens to be located in a residential neighborhood.  They get it.

The Science Center too has a nice neighborhood appeal.  With a proper curfew for the outdoor stage and amphitheater and some serious work on kid-pedestrian access, this too could work at the space.

Council, idealism is nice.  But this is a public asset and I ask you to please take reality into account when making your decision. Please, do no harm."

Council is expected to make a decision next week.  I expect it to be a purely political decision, and what is authorized by law (such as zoning) will have nothing to do with it.

PARKING SCAM UPDATE: A CITY COVER-UP?

Recent articles in our daily papers promoted what is clearly a city-driven cover-up of Parking-Gate.  Late last year, council approved $48K for an independent audit of the city's cash handling, transaction accounting and recording procedures, and the results are apparently in.  Of course, the results came in to the city manager and not council and the city then gleefully promoted that contrary to popular belief and speculation, the city ONLY lost $230K in the scam.  This info was released to the papers late on a Friday afternoon and they ran with what the city said, clearly not reading the report.  The report itself tells quite a different story.  My friend Maurice Emmer encapsulates it best in his immediate response to the paper:

"The March 6 Aspen Times reports the city 'actually' lost $230,000 on the parking scam.  The article, based on a memo and report released at 4 PM on a Friday when little attention is paid, is incorrect; a reading of the article and the report on which it is based confirms that the 'actual' loss is unknown.

The report commissioned by the city acknowledges that $692,000 of fraudulent transactions occurred.  The report then applies 'models' based on 'assumptions' to claim that the actual loss is in the neighborhood of ONLY $230,0000.  A typical 'assumption' is that fraudulent parkers would not have parked if they actually had had to pay.  Maybe.  But if fraudulent parkers hadn't occupied the spaces, maybe paying parkers would have.  Who knows?  I only know that the 'models' and 'estimates' used in the report leave many questions of accuracy.

Was the report designed to minimize the loss and save face for city management?  Notably, the report is not rendered to city council, as required by the City Charter.  It appears that city management ran the relationship with this 'independent' auditor.  Otherwise, the report would have been rendered directly to city council without city management intervention.

The cover memo from the City Finance Director acknowledges that 12 lapses in cash management are revealed in the report.  One in particular bears on the parking department: 'Ability to divert parking credit card proceeds' - The contract with Global Payments, the City's credit card processor, is currently signed solely by the Controller. This one individual can establish and change the bank account to which City revenue streams are deposited, which would allow the controller to divert revenues from the City to their personal bank account.'  It was suggested to city council months ago that it should investigate whether the city received all the proceeds it should have from the GOOD credit and debit card transactions.  This report fails to do so.

When a parker uses a valid card in one of Aspen's machines, the money doesn't go directly to the city.  There is at least one intermediary that could skim funds.  Only a proper audit would detect skimming.  The money goes first to the credit card collection company or the Canadian parking company, and only later to the City of Aspen.  The above instance of lax cash control confirms it would be possible for some of the city's money never to reach the city.  (If this was not a realistic possibility the auditors wouldn't have mentioned it.)  It was specifically suggested to city council in the past that the auditors should trace the cash proceeds from their initial deposit in the credit card collection account to insure that they ultimately got to the city's account.  This would detect any skimming.  The report does not indicate this was done.

I wish I could say that the results of audit work commissioned by the City of Aspen had settled the questions of how much the city lost on the scam and whether the city receives (even today) all the money it should from the parking system.  Sadly, the audit work missed the mark on both counts."

And in a council work session to examine the report, it became abundantly clear that the scope of work was actually more a high level evaluation of risk than an actual audit of specific parking transactions and revenue.  In other words, the entire $48K effort was a diversionary tactic to change the focus from the missing money to possible future process changes, not that these aren't necessary.  And to add insult to injury, the presentation was wrapped up with some "joking" about fraud, when in fact, it was fraud that the audit was originally designed to uncover.  Classic Aspen city hall:  nothing matters... (And what if it did?)

I'll be watching to see what council actually decides to do next.  One thing is clear, however, they still are unwilling to hold city manager Steve Barwick accountable for gross dereliction of duty.  He has failed in his management duties and failed to communicate such problems to council (and the public). Barwick has only succeeded in again sweeping a major scandal under the rug.

There is also widespread conjecture that there might be a different kind of parking scam currently in play.  Apparently, after using a credit card to pay the meter, several residents have reported hearing from their credit card companies that their cards had been "compromised" and therefore cancelled.  It is suspected by many that the origin of said "compromise" is the parking meters.  It seems something hinky is going on.  Buyer beware.

GINOS: GREENIES IN NAME ONLY

Ever had to get permission to cut down a tree in the city of Aspen?  As you can imagine, like everything else, it's not easy!  Native trees 3+" in diameter, coniferous trees (pine, spruce, fir, cedar) 4+" in diameter and deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves seasonally) 5+" in diameter all require a tree removal permit (see it HERE).  In addition to fees (determined by construction or non-construction related), a city forester will determine the "value" of the tree ($41 x 3.14 x (D/2) squared).  In other words, that 6" diameter tree that you just want moved (non-construction related) will cost you, if approved:


 Application fee:        $75

Value of tree:           $41 x 3.14 x (3 squared =9) = $1158.66

Mitigation plan (relocation of tree or replacement):  as determined by city manager of parks and recreation or his designee in an effort to preserve to the fullest extent possible existing trees considered desirable.

Total:  $1233, before mitigation

And then one fine Wednesday in February, over TWENTY large coniferous trees were cut down on Galena Plaza, east of the Library and west of the jail.  This was done to make room for the library expansion which just got underway and in anticipation of reconfiguring Galena Plaza.  Here are a couple shocking before and after photos that I took that day.

Apparently the city can lop down old growth trees with impunity, but if you have a tree on your private property, get ready to pay to get permission to take it down.  Greenies In Name Only = GINOs.  Ahhh, the hypocrisy!

EMPLOYEE MITIGATION SURVEY RESULTS

Hot off the press - the long-awaited residential job generation study is finally here.  Or, more accurately, it has finally been publicly released.  The study, commissioned over a year ago, was allegedly designed to address the hotly-contended issue of subsidized housing mitigation requirements for single-family and duplex construction.  Recall that the city feels strongly that an increase in square footage translates directly to the need for more full-time workers in town who need subsidized housing.  Those of us who have been awaiting the survey's release are not surprised by the results.  The numbers clearly do not support the city's narrative and they have obviously been scrambling (and likely working with the marketing research firm to "massage" the numbers to help their cause).

 In short, the city is contemplating changes to its subsidized housing mitigation requirements.  The city currently requires the provision of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or cash-in-lieu payment when a house is demolished and replaced with a larger house.  The current requirements are based on a 1990 ordinance that established a standard of one-full time employee for a house of 3000sf of floor area.  The new study (still in draft form so don't get excited) suggests this standard should be LOWERED to .445 employees for a house of 3000sf of floor area.  This would lower the cash-in-lieu requirement from $79.97 per sf to approximately $35.59.  Again, this is surely a huge disappointment to the city.  Their subsidized-housing-need-generation belief completely ignores the obvious:  given our enormous subsidized housing portfolio, any local employee hired (for a wide variety of services) beyond the construction phase is likely underemployed and happy to have the work!  And let's not forget the number of folks who do their own "work" at home!

HERE's the draft study if you're so inclined.  I'll be at the exciting open house on the topic in a couple weeks and will report back on what I learn.


Monday
Feb022015

ISSUE #112: Who's The ANTagonist Now?

#JeSuisCharlie  

 

THE "NO VARIANCE" PETITION 

You've probably heard - there's a major effort underway to get a ballot initiative in front of Aspen voters this spring that will strip city council of its ability to grant land-use variances.  A dedicated group (vociferously supported by Mick Ireland and other anti-development zealots and class warfare inciters like Marcella Larsen and Marcia Goshorn) is working to collect 300 signatures (5% of Aspen's registered voters) by February 4.  The idea stems from a recent action in Telluride where "a resident petition drive began over fears that big development was threatening town character," according to The Aspen Times.  Telluride's town council ultimately adopted the petition, stripping itself of the right to grant waivers to developers.  Of course, this has the anti-development crowd in Aspen salivating.

Aspen's version proposes that ANY council-approved variance on height, floor area, housing and parking be subject to a public vote, no exceptions.

The Red Ant has very mixed feelings on what I unfortunately see as a fait accompli.  I am a huge advocate of grassroots politicking and commend the petition organizers for their undertaking; I know all too well the work involved in a petition effort.  However, the law of unintended consequences - a frequent visitor to the city of Aspen - waits in the wings for yet another sojourn to our little town.  I believe variances should ALWAYS be a possibility, on a case-by-case basis however, not as a party favor.  To change the city charter restricting variances to those only approved by a public vote is simply too "mob-ocracy" for The Red Ant.


I also see this petition to change the city charter as Mick Ireland's tactic of hijacking the local democratic process and "schooling" the current city council simply because he can.  He knows more than all of them combined ever will about manipulating the public process to attain his selfish goals.  He is going to show them - and us - that he doesn't have to hold elected office in order to control this place his way.  Mick simply cannot handle the new level of civil discourse enabled by his departure 2 years ago.  Instead, he prefers an iron-fisted fiat.  This variance issue is one of land use, not something to be changed in our city charter!  (And this of course begs the inevitable question:  will the old dragon be announcing his candidacy for office this spring, using this issue as the platform?  Another story for another day....)


I saw one of the signature collectors at the market this week and learned that they have already collected well over 300 signatures.  Once something like this gets on the ballot, it's as good as won, given the "screw the rich," anti-development, bring-back-the-quiet-years activism that runs rampant in Aspen these days. 


Former mayoral candidate (oh, if only) Maurice Emmer recently outlined the pros and cons of the proposed amendment to the city charter.  He makes very good points.


Pros (arguments FOR removing council's variance-granting power):

  • Councils inevitably devote too much time to variance requests while neglecting councils' more basic functions, such as supervising city management.  Removing this power would allow more time for other functions only councils can perform.
  • Knowing that all councils inevitably grant major variances, developers over-invest in real estate, virtually requiring a variance bailout from councils.  If councils were powerless to grant variances, developers wouldn't over-invest and wouldn't require the variances.
  • Fights over significant variance requests are unnecessarily divisive in the community.
  • The variances inevitably granted can negatively impact the character that many locals prefer for our city.
  • Significant variances would still be possible, but the case would have to be strong to win a public vote.

Cons (arguments AGAINST removing council's variance-granting power):

  • Because variances have a widespread effect on the city, elected officials should make the call.  This is a representative democracy, after all.
  • Because no two real estate developments are alike, the system should not be so restrictive as to prevent reasonable variances.
  • It isn't necessary to repeal council's power; it's only necessary to elect different council members.

I absolutely understand the proponents' frustration - the variance shakedown game has truly gotten out of hand.  Current/recent councils have made some really bad decisions on granting waivers that have only encouraged more developers to ask for more exceptions.  But I truly lament the fact that council has not taken pro-active steps to avoid such a dramatic showdown.  They have only themselves to blame, I'm afraid.  It didn't have to be like this.  There has been plenty of opportunity for council to engage the "no variance" proponents as well as others in the community (like myself) who strongly and vociferously support much-needed changes to the city's land use code and have for a long time.  Instead, they are about to have their wings severely clipped for good, and have it written into the city charter!  Sadly, failing to have reformed the land use code or otherwise tackle this problem before activists seized the initiative is, itself, indicative of poor management by council and makes the case for curtailing council's powers.  (Imagine, for example, a relaxation of the land use and zoning codes so that rational rules apply to everyone.  This could alleviate the need for most all variances.)  By its own inaction, the current council (and its successors) is soon to be left powerless in the dust.


Since this "no variance" measure appears poised for success, there ARE several "companion" reforms that council should work to enact.  Pronto.

  1. SIGNIFICANTLY reform the land use and zoning codes to make them more rational, easing pressure for needing variances for every development project.
  2. Reform the subsidized housing program, emphasizing the management of current inventory instead of continuing to build more units.  This would result in less burdensome requirements for every new development to contribute to additional "housing" stock into perpetuity, therefore reducing the call for variances.

The measure is distinctly anti-development with heavy class warfare undertones.  Have the proponents determined that ALL development is bad?  I think they have.  It's in their DNA.  How a "no variance" measure will specifically and economically impact future development in Aspen is anyone's guess, but with NO POSSIBLE EXCEPTIONS to the current rules without a public vote, the environment for development has certainly just gotten a lot worse. 


BEFORE YOU SIGN THE PETITION:  Consider, this measure will take council's quasi-judicial role - where they act like a court, evaluating matters affecting individual property rights - and turn it over to the "mob-ocracy."  Land use decisions are NOT legislative decisions.  They are quasi-judicial because they impact individual rights, in this case property rights.  If this proposal were brought up anywhere but in a western mountain town, it would be challenged as unconstitutional because it delegates decisions on individual property rights to a popularity contest.  Additionally, how is the land use code to be updated in the future?  If only the voters can approve variances, how can the code be amended by council?  Must all land use code changes be put to a public vote as well?  Just imagine having to stage a campaign to assert your property rights.  That is precisely what this measure will require.  Any property owner wanting even the smallest, legitimate variance from the code would have to go through an election process - essentially a popularity contest - for approval.  And what of the slippery slope?  It gets truly terrifying.  What other individual rights might be trampled by a community electorate that is becoming a homogenized, subsidized housing plutocracy whose power arises not from their wealth or their contributions to the community but from their collective ignorance and narrow-mindedness?


NOTE:  At press time, council has directed city staff to craft some changes to the land use code that would limit council's ability to grant variances.  Perhaps this is a last-ditch effort to appease the "no variance" proponents?  I'm not sure.  My guess is that the "no variance" measure will be on that May ballot regardless of what council does at this late date.  Perhaps the hope is that voters might see council trying to self-police on variance granting and therefore decide that the "no variance" measure is too extreme and inflexible?  Good luck with that.  It's a day late and a dollar short.  Changes to the land use code by council should have been made long ago.  The chickens are finally coming home to roost.


And just today, a fabulous letter to the editor ran in the paper, courtesy of Neil Siegel.  When I can't say it better myself, I have no problem yielding the floor.  Here it is:

"Isn't it ironic that the biggest cheerleader for Bert Myrin's ill-conceived ballot initiative is our former mayor? Yep, the same guy who strong armed and proudly put his stamp of approval on the Aspen Art Museum among other skyline altering projects now wants to neuter council's authority and put the brakes on all development.

Make no mistake, this is every bit as much of a power play as if the former mayor still had the gavel in his hand. But, however meritorious the issue, the battle is being waged on the wrong terrain. The Home Rule Charter is no place for the bile and whims of those distrustful of elected officials (past and present according to Myrin) to spill out. Rather, it is the land use code itself that needs to be revised so that reasonable development can proceed apace without the requirement for wholesale variances, project after project.

Consider the just-approved Molly Gibson Lodge, a project all agreed had appeal and considerable merit as a step forward for the community. It was approved with multiple variances granted on allowable floor area and setback requirements. But, if Myrin's proposal was law today, council would be hog tied and the proposed project would have to go to the voters for approval, a costly waste of time and energy for everyone.

More properly, these issues are properly debated in the realm of the land use code itself. Today it is an entanglement of requirements worthy of Dickens' Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Bleak House. Why can't the protagonists here back off and focus their efforts and expertise on a revised, understandable and enforceable land use code that reflects a consistent and sustainable vision on the critical issues of mass and scale, parking and affordable housing requirements. Rather than tear the town apart, an unbiased and robust debate could yield positive results, and I do not mean another treatise of rules and regulations.

A revised code would have real teeth and put all developers on notice that the horse trading and Persian-rug-market environment we see today will simply not be allowed. A variance, by definition, is a departure from the rule, yet today we are upside down because it is the norm. Everyone agrees that needs to be fixed. For example, a revised land use code should set forth a very high threshold requiring a compelling showing that any variance by itself is clearly in the public interest - that is, not one justified as the result of bartering with the city. A very high bar would give council a substantive reason to say 'no' and at the same time build a record based on firm requirements embedded in the code."

Bravo, Neil.


HUNT'S "AFFORDABLE LODGE" UPDATE

Ask Mark Hunt about the development environment.  It's bad enough today, yet he still gets to negotiate civilly with council.  Sure, the guy is asking for some significant variances for the proposed "affordable lodge" developments he is willing to build in the downtown core.  After all, the community has long been bemoaning the loss of small lodges and affordable beds.  Think about it - as I've said before, why would Hunt build affordable lodges on the two valuable parcels he owns (730 E. Cooper where Domino's Pizza is located and the Conoco gas station at Main and Monarch) without some concessions from the city?  Affordable lodges are hardly the best economic use from a development standpoint, but he is willing to build what the city says it needs - if the city will play ball.  This is why variances are necessary!!  You don't get something for nothing in this world, folks.  City hall is going to learn this the hard way.


Late last week, Hunt "iced" the Main Street lodge (called "Base 2") proposal.  Council balked at the requested variances (off-premise parking, increased floor-area-ratio, a break on subsidized housing mitigation) because the parcel is across the street from the technical downtown core, so for now the project is on hold.  But don't hold your breath.  My bet is that Hunt maximizes his investment and builds a commercial project that meets the current zoning on the site.  Kiss 40 affordable lodge rooms goodbye.


The Cooper Street project (called "Base 1") is still deeply mired in the muck.  Within code at 17,000 sf, Hunt is requesting a waiver on 25 off-street parking places, $40,000 in impact fee waivers and a waiver on subsidized housing mitigation for 1.97 employees.  Hunt is negotiating with the city for 25-50 parking spaces nearby in the Rio Grande garage, but council is pretty dug in against this project with any of the requested waivers.  Simply put, they want an affordable lodge ($150-$200 a night) but don't want to give up anything to get it.  As if.

EMPLOYEE GENERATION SURVEY

It's been almost a year since city hall commissioned a survey to "determine" a scientific multiplier for the number of employees generated with each square foot of residential housing development.   It's bad enough that the city only looks at new development as rationale to build more subsidized housing instead of perhaps providing much-needed jobs for our under-employed-yet-living-in-subsidized-housing workforce.  But the reality, a year into the "study," is that there is no report.  Excuses are rampant, including "no draft yet" and "no survey results have been provided."  To this I say BS!  It has become clear that the survey results and the consultant on the project (and perhaps the staff over-seers as well) cannot support the conclusions the city desires so they are working on other ways to justify the proposed increased housing mitigation numbers.  The level of obfuscation is growing by the day.  And council has been silent.  The only pressure on the city to produce a report (for which taxpayers paid $33K) comes from concerned citizens.  I'm one.  Lifelong local Mike Maple is another.


If employee generation cannot be easily and logically proven, with a narrow range of deviation, it should not require mitigation.  Period.  Furthermore, any viable report must include an analysis and quantification of the multiple means by which Aspen property owners already pay for subsidized housing.  Isn't 2/3 of the RETT (1.5% of the purchase price of every Aspen property) enough subsidized housing mitigation? In my book, more mitigation sounds a lot like double taxation!  Furthermore, a resident-occupied dwelling likely already provides housing far in excess of its impacts.  This too should be given consideration in any analysis.


Sadly, I'm not holding my breath.  The city will go to great lengths to justify its desired mitigation numbers.  This will be yet another survey that uses too many "existing" data sources (census, Bureau of Labor, etc.) that have limited if any relevance to Aspen, and will inherently assume that every job created by residential development will go to a new employee who needs subsidized housing.  I have very little trust in this process - never have - and even less in the outcome of the survey, if we ever see it.


And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, as I've said numerous times before and will continue to say, how can we even begin to discuss subsidized housing NEEDS when we don't know what we have, who lives there and whether or not they're compliant?  This entire issue needs to be first addressed with a comprehensive subsidized housing audit.


NEW TENANT FOR THE OLD POWER HOUSE

A recent council meeting exposed the cluelessness of council and city staff when it comes to proper due diligence in evaluating "finalists" (that they've chosen) for tenancy at the Old Power House, recently vacated by the Aspen Art Museum.  The newly-added requirement that whichever entity "wins" provide a public food and beverage operation is nothing short of ridiculous.  Is the idea of this "café" to somehow drive traffic or to feed employees?

The 5 finalists for the city-owned 7200 sf space include four local non-profits:  Aspen Science Center, Powerhouse Performing Arts Center, The Power House Aspen (a community gathering place) and Aspen Media Powerhouse (a new studio and archive facility for GrassrootsTV).  The fifth finalist is a commercial tenant, Power Plant Brewery operated by the Aspen Brewery.  I wasn't originally aware that the city was considering a commercial lease for the property; I always thought that council was trying to "assist" a local non-profit with a public facility at a very favorable rate (the Aspen Art Museum paid $1 a year in rent to the city during its tenancy, 1979-2014).  And notably, quick research yielded the fact that the Old Power House site isn't even zoned for commercial use!  Council would have to amend the planned development uses (PUD) to ok the Brewery! It's pretty clear council doesn't really know what it's doing.


The rational and responsible thing to do would of course be for the city to utilize the Old Power House for its own needs, but let's face it, no city staff wants to be so far from Peach's!!  Staff wants to work "in town," preferably in the proposed new palace on Main Street!  By leaving the Old Power House out of the mix (for potential municipal uses, despite allegedly "needing" 70,000 sf more space), the city has concluded that there is no suitable public use for that building.  But, they are willing to spend money from the public coffers to upgrade it for a new tenant, including quite likely a commercial kitchen!  This, while looking to house a city function or two in the recently-vacated teeny tiny Mountain Rescue cabin on Main Street.  It simply defies common sense.

Council is currently situated to choose the least incompetent of this group in coming weeks.  Typical.  Yet another missed opportunity.  In its desire for a utopian "unique community asset," the upcoming decision will be a purely political one.  Best use for the space and what is authorized by law will have nothing to do with it.

Local resident and city watchdog Neil Siegel points out in a recent letter to the editor that it's not too late for council to "pull the plug" on this very flawed process, take a step back and evaluate the best potential uses for the valuable city-owned site and start anew.  Read it HERE.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Short of that, and short of a commercial lease (which should be put out into the competitive marketplace as opposed to being granted to a select for-profit tenant), the only reasonable choice is GRTV.  It's the only entity that has proven to be a sustainable community asset that can demonstrate funding and a solid record of operating a facility for over 40 years.  In fact, several of the other finalists are newcomers to scene and cannot demonstrate much!  Good grief.  (Besides, GRTV is dedicated to free speech.  And I like that.  A lot.)

For the highly curious and easily entertained, check out the original applications and council's (laughable) evaluation matrix HERE.

THE LATEST ON HYDRO - IT JUST WON'T GO AWAY, OR WILL IT?

The federal permit for the hydro plant on Castle Creek expires on February 28.  Phew, right?  Not so fast.  The preliminary permit, originally granted for 3 years in 2008 and renewed in 2012, should clearly be allowed to lapse, given council's direction to city staff to cease work on the hydro plant and pursue other renewable energy options last year.  "Should" is the operative word.  City staff filed a progress report with FERC last March stating that "The Aspen City Council has not abandoned the project.  The project remains a viable project at this juncture..." despite a November 2012 advisory vote that told the city to stop.  Then, council decided to pursue other renewable projects (not CCEC) in April and the city settled a lawsuit over water rights for the hydro plant in June.  Both the settlement and the subsequent council resolution specifically stated that "the city will not be pursuing or seeking to complete the CCEC hydroelectric project at this time."  But, in September, in defiance of council and the terms of both the settlement and resolution, city staff sent FERC a progress report that suggests the nail is not yet in the CCEC's coffin.  "In the event the city council decides to proceed with the CCEC project as a chosen alternative, the city will move forward as appropriate," according to the document.  What???


This says to me what I have long written here: city staff is hell-bent on completing the CCEC hydro plant and only plans to wait out the current council.  As soon as they have a hydro-favorable board seated, we'll quickly be back in the hydro business.  The good news is that FERC isn't real keen on granting 3rd successive preliminary permits, however, the city continues to pay its outside water lawyer to keep the dream alive.

As recently as December, staff was still lying to council about the hydro plant.  City attorney Jim True/False told council in an open meeting on December 14 that in the June 2014 memo to FERC, he informed FERC that the city had determined not to pursue the CCEC but would be pursuing micro-hydro options.  In researching this June memo, there are indeed references to micro-hydro but not to CCEC.  There was only one small acknowledgment of CCEC's demise and that was in a deeply buried exhibit.  The letter itself bragged on and on about all the things the city continues to do to advance the CCEC hydro plant. 

Under the auspices of "pursuing micro-hydro" projects on Castle Creek, city staff desperately wants that permit renewed.  This is entirely unnecessary.  The city can let the current permit expire, as it should, and then apply for new permits for micro-hydro projects if and when these come to fruition.  But don't be fooled, city staff desperately still wants the CCEC hydro plant and until it's really dead, it remains alive.

NOTE:  At press time, council has directed staff to let the FERC permit expire.  In the reporting of the decision however, there is strategic use of the term "for now" when referring to the CCEC hydro plant being "dead in the water."  The next step for council is to direct staff to immediately sell the custom $1.7 million turbine it ordered as soon as the votes for the hydro plant were counted in 2007.  We'll only get pennies on the dollar for it, but at least it would be gone.  This would be a logical and responsible next step toward the final death knell for the hydro plant.  In the meantime, we watch and wait.

TOO MANY TOURISTS?

On a very different note, here's something that came across the transom that really, really disturbed me.  I got the following email from a concerned citizen (name withheld from this publication):

"I was told the environment in Aspen over Christmas was less than pleasant because the town was so incredibly crowded and the visitors were rude and obnoxious.  I wish council was capable of weighing the balance between opening the flood gates to increase profit versus being a good steward before all Aspen charm is lost.  Aspen has become too large both high season winter and high season summer.  Council is elected to PRESERVE Aspen and its charm, not make decisions based solely on profit and greed. God help us!"

This begs numerous questions.  Is COUNCIL responsible for controlling the "flood gates" that ostensibly "let" people in (or "keep" them out)?  Is anyone?  Who gets let in?  Who gets kept out?  What's the criteria?  Or, are we a resort destination whose economy is tourism based?  Really!!  I'm appalled.

As far as I'm concerned, we get to live in a world class resort that, as a result of its success, is able to sustain a diverse and vibrant local community.  Neither could exist without the other, but I think it's safe to say that without the tourists, Aspen would no longer be a resort.  We'd have no economy.  Some community THAT would be!

NOTABLE NEWS

  • Mail-in Election in May:  All registered Aspen voters will receive a ballot in the mail for the municipal election on May 5.  Ballots will be mailed out on April 13.  Detailed info is not yet on the city's website, however if you are planning to leave Aspen for spring travels prior to April 13, I encourage you to contact the city clerk ASAP to work out how you can get a ballot and vote!!  Don't worry, I'll let you know what I'm thinking about candidates and the issues!  Clerk Linda Manning can be reached at linda.manning@cityofaspen.com and 970-429-2687
  • Get Your Food Tax RefundHERE is the food tax refund application form.  If you are a registered Aspen voter (prior to January 1, 2014) who has lived in the city for all of 2014, you and your dependents qualify for $50 each.  The city created the food tax refund as an incentive to encourage voters to support a sales tax referendum.  It was intended to reimburse voters the approximate amount of sales tax that they would pay annually on groceries due to the 1% city sales tax.  More info HERE. Deadline is April 15 at 5pm.  Free money from the city.  Get yours.
  • Repeal of Bag Ban in Huntington Beach, CA:  I have long opposed the City of Aspen's half-witted plastic grocery bag ban and "fee" (which I see as a tax).  HERE is an interesting piece on an Orange County community's decision to repeal their bag ban.  Theirs didn't have the fee/tax implications and controversy that ours does, but the situation raises some interesting points none-the-less.

Happy New Year from The Red Ant ... Just home from skiing in Austria.





Monday
Feb022015

ISSUE #111: A Holiday InformANT

"At The Red Ant, the fun never ends... Holiday blessings to you, your family and friends."

 

CITY HALL NEEDS MORE SPACE: THE ULTIMATE HYPOCRISY
While grappling with public outcry about the current construction boom in Aspen and working diligently to curb development in general, the city is readying to embark on the largest construction project in town in years -- for itself.  And I don't mean roads, bridges and infrastructure.  Ostensibly those things would be for us -- the taxpayers.  What they have in mind is nothing more than a massive monument to their own mediocrity.  Read on...

Yes, it's true that the Aspen Police Department is soon getting booted from the basement space in the county courthouse it has long shared with the Pitkin County Sheriff.  And it's also true that the city's building and engineering departments will need to relocate from their leased basement digs in the Aspen Daily News building by 2018.  But relocating these functions has created a tangled matrix of office space needs, wants and dreams for the city that, if left unchecked and unsupervised in their planning and funding, are currently approaching nearly 80,000 sf with cost estimates nearing $40 million.  The tab is not just for the 24,500 sf of space for the evicted departments, however; it also includes upgrades to bathrooms and hallways (per code) as well as larger meeting rooms and more offices, plus a to-be-constructed 45,000 sf facility long dreamed of for the Zupancis property, just east of the courthouse annex on Main St. across from St. Mary's Church.

Ever the sly one, city manager Steve Barwick knows better than to raise taxes or float a bond to cover this ridiculous expenditure, both of which would take a public vote.  (He has learned the hard way that the fiscal hawks in town are well organized and motivated!)  Instead, he plans to use the buckets of gold tucked under mattresses in various department accounts at city hall to fund the massive physical expansion.  And if he needs more money?  No problem. There's a financial tool called a "certificate of participation" which is a form of government debt similar to a bond.  Current estimates and cash reserve requirements project a $21 million debt issuance need, to be repaid at a 4% rate ($1.34 million a year -- for about 25 years). City officials are confident that "redirecting" funds currently spent on leased office space would contribute significantly to the debt service.  Isn't that confidence reassuring??

But please note, given the "independent" nature of the financing, the city is moving ahead with nary a public process.  They don't need to impress us, convince us or get us to approve anything at the polls so they are not even bothering to ask us.  It's kinda like the "remodel" of the Rubey Park bus station that is more of an expansion than any kind of remodel I've ever seen.  They did that without our input too because they managed to fund it -- with our money -- without us!!

We all know that City Hall, currently ensconced in the historic Armory building at the corner of Hopkins and Galena, is a crowded and tangled fire-trap of office space.  But given the commercial real estate already owned by the city (and located IN the city), doesn't it equally make sense that we consider using and maximizing what we have before hauling off and building something new just because we can??

From the standpoint of perspective, the projected space "needs" of the city are approximately the size of TWO Aspen Art Museums!  Councilman Adam Frisch recently asked the $40 million question, "How do you hide 70,000 sf?"  Exactly.  While some city functions should be readily and easily accessible to the public (and therefore justify a convenient location downtown), many others are invisible to the public and can be located ANYWHERE.  Just think for a moment about the EXISTING spaces owned by the city -- possibilities that include but are not limited to the vacant Mountain Rescue cabin next to the Hickory House, the ACRA offices below the parking garage on Rio Grande Park and the Aspen Youth Center space, currently utilized by several community groups for about 22 hours per week.  And don't forget the $18+ million paid by the city in 2008 for the BMC Lumberyard out by the airport.  Ever development-hungry when it comes to projects and expenditures that suit itself, the city is indeed dreaming BIG.  The wish list gratuitously includes an upgrade and addition to the current City Hall AND perhaps booting ACRA out of the Rio Grande building, but we know the city bureaucrats all too well, and they have long had their eyes on a shiny new edifice to themselves right on Main St.  This whole boondoggle begs the even bigger question .....

WHAT ABOUT THE OLD POWER HOUSE??
Long occupied by the Aspen Art Museum, the historic Old Power House building on the Roaring Fork River at the corner of North Mill St and Gibson is currently vacant.  Owned by the city, it was leased to the AAM for $1/year until the museum relocated to its new in-town space last summer.

Think about it.  At 7200 sf, the Old Power House represents a MAJOR SOLUTION to the city's office space needs.  Couldn't the IT department, human resources, engineering or environmental health, or all four, be located there?  Sure, it's a few blocks from the central core, but really.  Would that matter?  The space is there AND IT'S PAID FOR!  What about the Police Department?  I'm a neighbor and admit it wouldn't be ideal, but heck, if the space works, I would live with it.  As much as I respect the non-profit entities vying for the Old Power House space, I am sick of the subsidized culture that is out of control in this town.  When the municipality owns the space and needs the space, frankly, it should use the space.  This is not to imply that any of the potential lessees offer dubious benefits to the community (although in a couple of cases it might be argued).  The space should simply not be given away.  Not now.

However, in an ill-timed and mad rush to "fill" (read: give away) the clearly valuable space (although the AAM found it less than desirable as a tourist destination given its ~ 4+ block downhill distance from the Hotel Jerome), the city has been drumming up interest from community groups eager for cheap in-town real estate.  The recent application process drew interest from many viable and several not-so-viable parties that came to the table offering such "community benefits" as a homeless shelter, a youth hostel, a rehab center and a John Denver museum.  A community panel vetted the applications and came up with the finalists: a science center, a Red Brick Center for the Arts performance and events center and a new HQ for GrassRoots TV that would provide public access to its archives.  Ok, each of these has its appeal, some more than others.  (Personally, I think GRTV is best suited to inhabit the space because it's a proven long-term community organization that already serves a diverse group of organizations and individuals in the valley, and more importantly, its services and offerings will not significantly increase the intensity of activity in this transitional zone between downtown and one of Aspen's more densely populated residential neighborhoods.)  But in its inimitable fashion, city council took the recommendations and added two of their own: a "community gathering place" for locals and support groups, as well as a brewery.  The final decision will be made before the May municipal election.  Frankly, the city needs to look long and hard at just giving this space away, especially when its own "space needs" are front and center.  And ridiculously expensive.

A fascinating theory was presented to The Red Ant about this enormous development over-reach by the city.  Could it possibly be that the city (whose ineptitude led to the lawsuit settlement that brought us the new Aspen Art Museum with all of its waivers) is going to "show" the AAM who's boss in this town by building an EVEN BIGGER edifice to the "because we can" movement??

THE "MARK HUNT" OPPORTUNITY: THIS GENERATION'S "HADID" MOMENT?
A harbinger of things to come actually reads more like history repeating itself.  Remember Mohamed Hadid, the guy who bought 88 acres of primo Aspen real estate in 1986 where the St. Regis (nee Ritz-Carlton), Hyatt Grand Aspen and Silver Circle Ice Rink now stand? (He was also the one who incidentally gifted the Meadows property to the Aspen Institute, ensuring it would stay in Aspen.)  Hadid was a controversial guy at the time.  It was nothing personal, just that he had the land and the bucks to make some serious changes to the Aspen landscape.  How dare he, many cried at the time.  But today, with the St. Regis and Grand Hyatt serving as thriving additions to our bed base and tourist amenities, those criers have a new target.

Mark Hunt of Chicago and his investment group have snapped up numerous commercial properties in Aspen over the past couple of years.  Earmarked for redevelopment, such properties include the Conoco gas station on Main Street, the Crystal Palace building, the Bidwell Building (where Kemosabe currently resides), the Aspen Daily News building on Hopkins Street and the Buckhorn Arms building (where Johnny McGuire's and Domino's are located).  Hunt recently completed "Aspen One" at the corner of Hopkins and Galena where the Gap once stood.  High end retail fills the ground floor while a much-anticipated restaurant will soon open on the second floor.

The local papers enjoyed reporting on a "bro-mance" last summer between Mayor Skadron and Hunt after they met to discuss Hunt's vision for his properties.  With the city vociferously lamenting the loss of small lodges over the years, Hunt returned to city hall this fall with not one but two mid-priced lodge project concepts for the central core.  Two lodges with a total of 88 small rooms (under 200 sf) with price tags to match, and public amenities such as a bowling alley and rooftop deck were put forth.  Never understanding basic business concepts such as "gives and gets," anti-development naysayers and public officials went nuts when Hunt requested waivers on parking requirements for these two lodges and well as relief on subsidized housing mitigation.  They simply want what they want (cheap hotel rooms) and are unwilling to negotiate with the person willing to build such an economically poor use of very valuable real estate.  To this push back, Hunt said it is hard to hear some of the criticisms, especially when he designed the project at the request of city officials who have been clamoring for an affordable lodging development.  He said the concept wasn't his first choice for the lot and still isn't.  Of course it isn't!!  The city should be very careful here.  Mark Hunt is willing to build something no one else would even touch.  But that willingness obviously comes with a price.  Miss this opportunity now and Hunt will surely construct more high end ground floor retail space and perhaps even some very nice free market condos upstairs.  The unique lodging opportunity won't just be lost in the near term, it will be gone forever.

Besides, did you hear that commercial real estate is HOT HOT HOT??  Commercial leases are going for $250/sf in the core!  And even at this rate, vacancies are very hard to come by.  If the city squanders great opportunities to work with those who come to the table with unique solutions, skier visits (which are down 15-20% from the high in 1997-98) will never recover, commercial lease rates will continue their climb, and you know the rest. Now, no one is saying Hunt's affordable lodge proposals are any kind of "must do," but they most certainly are "must considers."  You don't get somethin' for nuthin' in this world.  (Well, unless you get subsidized housing, a free ski pass, free bus service, discounted/free access to cultural marvels, etc. as an Aspen local, that is.  But I digress.  However, now you can see how the mentality has gotten so unbelievably warped around here!!)

Mark Hunt is a businessman. My guess is this offer of his won't be on the table for long. Nor should it be.  Frankly, given the pushback and vitriol directed Hunt's way, I just don't see the proposed affordable lodge projects happening.

IS THE "AFFORDABLE LODGE" EVEN A POSSIBILITY IN ASPEN?
As a friend of The Red Ant is quick to point out, we have groceries and we have Gucci, and very little in between.  It's just the economic reality.  So when the city pushes for more "affordable" in-town lodging, is not the elephant in the room the inevitable question, "Once we get these people here and into 'budget' hotel rooms, what will they do when there is nothing else 'budget' that we offer?"  My guess is that the law of unintended consequences will once again answer that for us.  Aspen is NOT a budget destination.  Sorry folks, it just isn't.  To represent ourselves as such is disingenuous and will surely backfire.

BAD CAPTAIN RE-ARRANGES DECK CHAIRS ON THE TITANIC
We all knew that city manager Steve Barwick has an employment contract worth $170K per year.  As it turns out, according to our city charter (Section 6.1), the city manager is also appointed "without definite term."  It's been this way since 1970 when the charter was adopted.  Who knew!?! One of just two municipal employees overseen by council, the city manager currently rests easy with a fat contract into perpetuity.  This doesn't mean he can't be fired -- he most certainly can!  He can also be reviewed by his bosses -- city council -- but they don't seem to see the need for that, despite a long list of egregious offenses and outright dereliction of duty by this bureaucrat.  Why is this?  Nobody knows and council isn't talking.  It's actually as though they really don't know or understand how the system works!

In the wake recent "issues" (such as the parking meter scandal and lies to council about an unnecessary $750K drainline), Barwick, never one to accept responsibility, moved a few bureaucrats on his staff around and even demoted the parking director.  But no one was fired, and no further answers have been forthcoming on the independent audit and the enormous amount of missing money.  Barwick continues to deflect from his own poor management by trying to re-focus on the individuals who scammed the machines instead of his organization which ignored (at best) or (more likely) was complicit in raiding the coffers.  He also fabulously commented on his own failure(s), "Right now, departments pretty much go straight to city council with very little review by the city manager's office."  Now why is that, Steve?  If you were doing your job -- and that job is to manage your staff -- not one item should get before the council before its time.  And when something is finally presented to council, it should be with your full knowledge, approval and sign-off.  Anything short of this is simple dereliction and you ought to be formally reprimanded.

The latest Barwick oversight is spectacularly illustrative of the problems in city hall.  Over the summer, a $580K overhaul of the gondola plaza intersection at Durant and Hunter streets was completed.  The idea was to make the intersection safer for pedestrians.  Numerous citizens criticized the plan before its start, but the city dug it up anyway.  In the end, two large stormwater "rainfall pits" (now appropriately nicknamed "face planters") that jut out into traffic lanes await disembarking bus passengers and pedestrians like open mine shafts.  There have been several instances of people falling in already.  When brought to council's knowledge recently, the mayor called this situation to the attention of the relevant department head and assumed that matters would be quickly corrected.  But no.  The city charter PROHIBITS council (including the mayor) from directing staff.  No wonder staff doesn't do council's bidding nor do they tell council the truth.  These folks work for Barwick!  The responsibility for directing staff is the city manager's alone.  Instead, if council understood the basic workings of our government, they would direct the city manager to fix the problem.  That way, the responsibility would lie with Steve Barwick each and every time, 100% of the time.  And he would be solely responsible.  (Note: at press time and as a result of a letter to the paper from an out-of-town MD, the city has filled the "face planters" in with snow as a temporary fix.)

The management of Steve Barwick (as well as city attorney Jim True) is one KEY responsibility of council.  This responsibility is being grossly neglected and as a result, city hall is in disarray with a void of leadership, missing money, poor morale, zero accountability and a series of mishaps that continue to shock and awe the public.

And don't forget, while council fiddles, Barwick is surely fine-tuning his own "city-owned housing for life" plan, similar to the one he designed for and granted to former utilities director Phil Overeynder (see Issue #22).

Please contact city council and let them know that you would like better supervision of city manager Steve Barwick, including better oversight of our public funds: 

 

Steve.Skadron@cityofaspen.com          Adam.Frisch@cityofaspen.com

Ann.Mullins@cityofaspen.com                        Art.Daily@cityofaspen.com

Dwayne.Romero@cityofaspen.com

HOW TO BETTER ENABLE COUNCIL TO ACTUALLY GOVERN
In one of the best published columns of the year, Maurice Emmer presents a few very actionable changes that would enable council to better focus on their given responsibilities (supervision of the city manager and city attorney, enact laws, consider initiatives, appoint civic boards and hear land-use appeals).  In short, take away council's responsibility to hear land-use appeals.  Leave this in the hands of Planning & Zoning where conforming proposals will be approved and those non-conforming will be rejected.  It's very simple.  Same rules for everyone.  Council does not need to play "Super P&Z" with every application.  When truly compelling variances are requested, P&Z can refer these to a public vote.  The variance proposals that are indeed truly compelling will be approved by the voters.

Please take the time to read this piece, entitled "New Rules for the Monkey Cage."  It suggests such obvious things such as adopting a guideline that requires the city manager and attorney to do what the council instructs them to do.  Imagine that!?

Instead of coddling developers and doling out variances and waivers on an ad hoc basis, council should tend to its knitting.  And when our land-use code doesn't work, make the needed changes - for everybody.  With their new-found time, council can then get our "renegade government" back under control.

SUBSIDIZED PIZZA?
They can't manage their two employees but council CAN pick winners and losers! You like pizza -- I know you do.  And I do too!  Taster's makes a good pie and I've been known to order from them from time to time.  Taster's Pizza is currently located in the city-owned Rio Grande Place where the city is looking to move its operations amidst the planned municipal expansion.  Unlike its competitors (Ryno's, NY Pizza), Taster's pays below-market "subsidized" rent to the city.  The fine economists on council were in rare form when the issue of relocating Taster's came up recently.  It seems the Romero, Frisch and Daily families are regular customers of the eatery, therefore these councilmen are emotionally invested in keeping Taster's in its location, even if this means the city having to rent high-priced office space elsewhere in town.  Yep, in an effort to "prevent further erosion of affordable eateries in town," Dwayne Romero and the others seem willing to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize one local pizza joint and not the others.  The great irony?  It was Mayor Skadron, the council member with the least amount of business acumen, who actually raised the "subsidy" issue as a potential problem.  He predicts "complaints" if the city ends up paying market rent for office space so that Taster's can keep its subsidized tenancy.  Ya think?!?

AND ONE LAST UNBELIEVABLE UPDATE TO THE HYDRO PLANT SAGA
Busted in its attempt to snow council into approving $750K for a drainline that would complete the CCEC Hydro Plant despite council's decision to shelve the project, the city has been under public pressure to sell the custom $1.7 million turbine that it commissioned years ago, long before getting the approvals to build the hydro plant.  The sale of this albatross would signal the true "end" of the hydro plant and its archaic technology that was nearly employed on Castle Creek.  There isn't much of a market for this outdated technology so it's likely the city would only recoup pennies on the dollar for its premature expenditure, so what did they do?  I hope you're sitting down.

The mayor and city attorney recently approached a local water rights lawyer and several of his clients (who have actively opposed the CCEC and continue to monitor the city's hydro-on-Castle-Creek activities) with a proposal that is not to be believed.  Except that it happened.  The mayor and city attorney asked the water lawyer to ask his CCEC-opposing clients to pull together $2 million (TWO MILLION DOLLARS) that would be "donated" to a Peru-based non-profit (that the city attorney is involved with) so that the non-profit could buy the hydropower turbine and generator from Aspen and ship it down south where the Peruvian government can use it.  Yep.  City officials are asking local property owners along Castle Creek to pay for the city's mis-step of buying the turbine and generator in the first place.  Is this even legal?  Importantly, do not overlook the veiled threat in the proposal:  the city knows that as long as they are in possession of the turbine which is specifically designed for the 42", mile-long water pipe they have nearly completed, the very real prospect of resurrecting the CCEC hydro plant remains.

How disgraceful.  And at the same time, what a laugh. Can't make it up!

Meanwhile, the city continues its quest for hydro on Castle Creek and council does nothing to stop them.  (Staff does NOT follow council direction because they don't report to council.  Barwick simply ignores council direction because it is not firmly given, especially when it conflicts with staff's agenda.)  In the last quarter of the year, the city's independent water lawyer filed a report with the feds (FERC) to maintain the city's place in line in case it ever filed an application to build and operate the CCEC hydro plant.  The cover letter to the report additionally lists 16 activities by city staff during 2014 that are noted as "project-specific" to the CCEC.  It is unclear given council's lack of oversight what is going on and who is in charge.  But you can guess.  Hint: staff works for Barwick and Barwick only.

Several questions jump out:

1       City council issued a directive not to expend city resources on CCEC.  How is it consistent with that directive for city staff to be performing "project-specific" activities to advance the CCEC?

2       How is it consistent with the above-mentioned directive for the city to pay legal fees to prepare this filing?

3       Did staff inform council of its intent to file this report with FERC?  If not, why not, in view of the directive?  If so, how is council's involvement consistent with the directive?

It has become abundantly clear that the $70K study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that, by council's own determination, yielded renewable energy alternatives for Aspen to pursue that did not include the CCEC, is now being rejected by city staff.  The third part of the study, originally scheduled to be delivered in July 2014, has never been presented.  It seems that staff is now telling council that at least one of the NREL recommendations selected by council is "dubious" and that CCEC hydro should be reconsidered.  Really?  Whose recommendation is more dubious, city staff's or NREL's?  It's gotten ridiculous that council actually listens to these buffoons.  City staff must be told (via Steve Barwick) once and for all and in no uncertain terms that they ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT include the CCEC in their renewable energy plans.  Period.  And sell that turbine, legitimately.  Now.

Tuesday
Dec022014

ISSUE #110: Enjoy Your ThANTsgiving Weekend!

  "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!

 

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