Burlingame meeting a civil discourse
August 8, 2008
ASPEN ” As thunder cracked outside of the Paepcke Auditorium at the outset of a town hall meeting about the Burlingame Ranch affordable-housing project Thursday evening, all signs indicated it was going to be a heated debate.
But after two hours, no personal attacks were levied, and a civilized discussion took place.
Critics of Aspen city government staged the meeting and invited Aspen’s elected officials; one showed up ” City Councilman Dwayne Romero. He sat on a panel of five people, all of whom have a stake in the future of how Burlingame is built.
Earlier this summer, the Aspen City Council had talked about hosting a town hall meeting in the wake of controversy surrounding a brochure given to voters in 2005 that said Burlingame Ranch would cost $74.3 million total. For various reasons, that figure has climbed to an estimate of $140 million.
But instead of a town hall meeting, city officials elected to have an open house to explain the history of Burlingame, how the costs increased and what the future holds for the affordable housing development. That open house occurred last week and close to 100 people showed up. Many of them were city employees.
At Thursday’s town hall meeting, 107 people showed up, many of whom were citizens who were looking for more information on Burlingame’s costs, as well as the role of city government being a developer of affordable housing and how the building of it will be financed in the future.
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For the most part, citizens got their answers and got a better understanding of the complex issues involved with municipal financing and development.
Much of the discussion turned to the city financing affordable housing projects, specifically Burlingame Ranch, which is currently estimated to cost $50 million to complete phases two and three. But that number is expected to climb if more units are built there and construction costs continue to increase.
Some citizens are concerned that borrowing money against future revenues generated by the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) will put the community and city government at too great of a risk.
“I’m worried,” said Pitkin County Assessor Tom Issac, adding dwindling tax revenue could translate into tens of millions of dollars in debt, which would be a burden on taxpayers if the city issues bonds to pay for Burlingame. “The number of real estate sales is about half of what it was last year. We are not generating the revenues we had.”
Former City Councilman Tim Semrau asked Romero if he supports asking voters for “zillions of dollars” to build Burlingame without a fixed bid from a contractor.
Romero responded that he doesn’t support a bond question this fall that would ask voters to borrow $50 million against the RETT, which also must be renewed by city voters because the tax sunsets within a couple of years.
One citizen said he was concerned that because the city government has exhausted the housing fund through land purchases and can longer follow the traditional “pay as you go” funding, the future of the affordable housing program is in jeopardy.
“We used to save up our money, now we have used up our money,” he said. “This is going to be on the backs of the taxpayers.”
Others asked whether the city of Aspen should be in the business of development, especially large, multimillion-dollar capital projects that extend over years.
Panelist Mike Maple, a developer who sits on a city-appointed construction experts group that is examining how to build Burlingame at a more reasonable price, said development is far more complex than just putting “sticks to bricks.”
He added that city government doesn’t have the expertise to handle the massive issues related to large development projects like Burlingame. Maple suggested that city officials and the community ought to push back and reconsider the entire affordable housing program ” who it serves, and how it’s built and managed.
“We don’t have a good idea on where we are going … what do we need, what do we have and how are we going to get it done?”