Archived Ants
« ISSUE #133: 2017 EndorsemANTs 4/11/2017 | Main | ISSUE #131: End DormANT-cy at 1A (2/3/2017) »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here's yet another reason why...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend