Pitkin County budget highlights infrastructure, affordable housing | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County budget highlights infrastructure, affordable housing

Pitkin County commissioners are scheduled to vote next week on a more than $101 million budget for 2017 that continues a recent emphasis on infrastructure upgrades.

“The big picture is we’re still in a construction and renewal phase,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.

The $101,248,204 budget for 2017 is actually a 4 percent overall decrease from the 2016 budget, he said. The decrease comes mainly from the fact that the county budgeted about $23.6 million in 2016 to renovate and add on to its building at 530 E. Main St., Peacock said.

County officials have budgeted just $1.3 million in 2017 for costs related to the new county building. That project is expected to be finished by spring 2018 at the earliest.

Other county projects budgeted for 2017 include designing and constructing a new facility for the Aspen Ambulance District, designing a new airport terminal, installing a new public safety communications system, installing broadband infrastructure for rural areas of the county, installing solar panels and creating more affordable housing, according to Peacock and county documents.

The effort to create more affordable housing both for the community and for county employees is particularly noteworthy, Peacock said.

While the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority — which oversees nearly 3,000 deed-restricted units in the Aspen area — technically includes the county, it is essentially a city department that mainly deals with units within city limits.

That unbalanced relationship led to criticism of the county’s lack of recent affordable-housing efforts during the recent campaign between Greg Poschman and Scott Writer for the District 3 seat on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. Those previous efforts mainly included a small program to buy free-market units on occasion and turn them into affordable-housing units, Peacock said.

Now, however, the county plans to spend $9 million in 2017 to expand those efforts, he said. At present, that plan includes coming up with two larger projects “within driving range of Aspen and Basalt” that may end up contributing 43 more units to the area’s affordable-housing stock, Peacock said.

Peacock declined to provide further details because of ongoing property negotiations, but said the plans include developing and buying pre-existing housing complexes.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” he said. “Now we want to do something larger for (the community and county workers).”

In addition, the county is budgeting another $2 million to start a housing program for county employees only, he said. That “joint equity program” will allow employees and the county to join together to buy a home in the county, Peacock said. The county would buy and own as much as 40 percent of the home. If the employee stops working for the county, the employee could buy the county out, the county could buy the employee out and add the home to existing affordable-housing stock, or they could sell it and split the proceeds, he said.

“We’re looking at getting more aggressive (with affordable housing),” Peacock said.

The Aspen Ambulance District facility was built in the early 1980s above Aspen Valley Hospital and no longer fits the needs of the district, Peacock said. For one thing, it’s just barely big enough to house all the ambulances in a climate-controlled environment, which is necessary because of the medicines and equipment the vehicles carry, he said.

Voters passed a tax question two years ago to fund the facility, which is budgeted at $6 million.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport also needs a new facility, Peacock and airport officials have said. To that end, the county is budgeting $4.5 million in 2017 to design a new terminal, which will likely be built in 2018 and 2019, Peacock said.

The airport also plans to add three full-time employees because of increased air-traffic volume and new security procedures mandated by the Homeland Security Department, he said.

Efforts to provide broadband access to rural parts of Pitkin County also will take precedence in 2017. Officials plan to combine that effort with an existing plan to convert public safety radio communication to a digital system, which will save about $11 million, Peacock said. The broadband system will piggyback on the public safety radio technology, which together will cost about $3 million, he said.

Finally, county officials have budgeted $1.7 million in 2017 for road and bridge maintenance. In addition, they plan to spend $250,000 to install solar panels at the county’s public works facility and at the landfill so those facilities can be self-sustaining from an energy standpoint, he said.

Another large project scheduled for 2017 is the creation of a new county Department of Health, which will cost about $470,000 over two years, Peacock said. The new department is necessary because of changes to state law regarding public health, he said.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote preliminarily on the budget Dec. 7, then cast final votes at their regular meeting Dec. 14.

jauslander@aspentimes.com