Longtime city of Aspen employee to retire soon – sort of
Ryan Summerlin December 21, 2012
ASPEN – Phil Overeynder fondly remembers the first time he lived and worked in Aspen.
It was 1969. He was driving from Los Angeles, where he had just finished a summer internship for the city’s Engineering Department, and heading back to Colorado Springs, his hometown.
“I wasn’t very happy in Los Angeles,” he said. “I drove as far as I could from L.A. toward Colorado Springs, and it just so happens that I pulled into Carbondale and spent the night in the car. I woke up the next morning and drove into Aspen and heard an ad on the radio that said Aspen Skiing Co. was looking for people to clear the ski runs.”
Overeynder lived in a tent at the base of the Maroon Bells while working for Skico that fall. It was the beginning of a strong connection between Overeynder, who was just a few months away from completing his college degree, and Aspen, where he eventually would serve many years as public works director, a position that later was renamed director of utilities and environmental initiatives.
Because of health issues, he stepped down from that role in May 2011 but continued to work in the Utilities Department, managing special projects and serving as an adviser on issues related to energy purchases, water rights and strategic planning.
Overeynder, 64, begins an odd sort of retirement on Jan. 4. He’s still going to report to work every weekday in a part-time role for the city. Talking with him, one gets the feeling that he loves to work – that he lives for it.
“I’m still going to be available on a part-time basis,” he said.
In fact, though, as part of a contract he worked out with City Manager Steve Barwick in 2007, Overeynder is required to keep going.
Five years ago, Overeynder was considering a utilities manager position in California that offered a bigger salary and a better retirement plan. Barwick didn’t want to lose him and worked on an arrangement that gave Overeynder a deal that no other city employee enjoys: housing for life.
The contract called for Overeynder to work full time for five more years and then part time for five years.
The first half of that arrangement is complete. Therefore, five years from now, he and his wife, Deborah, a former schoolteacher, will be able to continue to live in the home they’ve enjoyed since 1995 without Overeynder having to report to the office.
At the time, Barwick defended the unprecedented move, calling it a simple business decision and adding that Overeynder was not easily replaceable. He began his career with the city in 1993 after working in various locales, including Denver (for the Environmental Protection Agency), Frisco (for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments) and Santa Barbara, Calif. (as a local water-agency manager).
“The upside of having Phil for 10 years far outweighs the cost of dedicating housing to him,” Barwick told The Aspen Times in 2007.
Today, Overeynder believes the agreement, and his decision not to take the job in California, worked out well not only for himself but also for the community and city government.
“I’ve had other opportunities and other things I could do, but I love Aspen and decided this is what I want to do,” he said. “In my view of it, it’s just a way to give back to the community and stay here and do the things I love and to provide what I can to the community in terms of my knowledge and experience.”
Overeynder said he returned to Aspen 19 years ago to work for the city because of his fondness for the area.
“It happens to be that what I want to do is also what the city wants me to do,” he said. “It’s always a good circumstance when you have a meeting of the minds.”
Looking back on his career, Overeynder described some tough situations.
He recalled working in Santa Barbara during the seven-year California drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It got so bad that people were painting their lawns green. He arranged emergency measures, such as trucking in water and setting up new pipeline delivery systems.
When he arrived in Aspen in 1993, there was a different type of crisis. From a sales perspective, the city couldn’t account for more than half of its treated water. Much of it was leaking through the pipes; also, some customers weren’t being charged for all the water they used.
Overeynder and his staff spent the next few years eliminating the leaks, promoting conservation and setting up a system requiring customers who used the most water to pay a higher rate.
Over the past decade, with the city’s water utility running more smoothly, attention in his department turned to renewable-energy goals and the electricity utility. Overeynder estimates that by 2015, renewable-energy sources such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power will account for 87 percent of the city’s total energy portfolio.
Overeynder said that in his part-time role, he will continue to work with Utilities Director Dave Hornbacher and others in the department on renewable-energy initiatives, protection of water rights and basic departmental efficiencies.
Extending the life of infrastructure that drives the water and electric utilities also is a top concern, he said.
Overeynder said he was disappointed when voters narrowly decided on Nov. 6 that the city should not spend more money to finish the Castle Creek hydroelectric plant. Still, he believes hydropower, in some form or another, has a future in Aspen.
“I did my best to put out factual information so that people could make an informed decision,” he said. “Rather than relying on good technical information as their guide, (voters were influenced by) who had the most money for advertising on radio, TV, newspapers and mail.”
He said hydropower can fill a niche in a way that other forms of renewable energy can’t.
“It’s not as variable,” he said. “I know people are concerned about costs, but if you look at the long-term view of how things actually have worked with hydroelectric power in the city’s experience, it’s hard to come up with something that performs better than that.”