Aspen City Council braces for ’09
ASPEN ” For Aspen’s elected leaders, 2009 is going to be a survival year.
As the new year gets into full swing, and the nation braces for more economic uncertainty, Aspen City Council members say they are keenly aware of what their limitations and opportunities will be in representing their constituents.
“Fiscal policy is number one for me,” said City Councilman Dwayne Romero about his priorities for 2009. “Despite how resilient we’ve been, we are looking at a totally different set of conditions, and we need new proposed actions as a result.”
Romero predicted that the recession will last through all of 2009. As a result, he intends to show economic leadership this year. Romero added that Aspen must be proactive and diligent in how it proceeds.
That means creative and cooperative partnerships with other organizations to market and support Aspen as a resort.
City Councilman Jack Johnson agreed, saying it’s crucial the city continue its financial support of local nonprofits and area festivals. And while Aspen continues to feel the effects of the recession, there are opportunities that officials can capitalize on, Johnson said.
“We need to harness these economic times,” he said, adding that construction costs will likely go down, which could enable the city government to build affordable, or “citizen” housing, at lower taxpayer subsidies.
The recession might also bring down land costs, which could provide opportunities for the city to purchase more properties for affordable housing, Johnson said.
Whatever the case, he said a priority for him is to develop some concrete plans for affordable housing on several properties the city already owns.
Whether he will be able to carry out those plans remains to be seen, as his seat, as well as two others, are up for re-election in May.
Johnson, along with City Councilwoman Jackie Kasabach and Mayor Mick Ireland, haven’t said whether they will seek another term.
Developing any new housing, specifically completing phases two and three at Burlingame Ranch, will require floating a bond that would borrow against future revenue from the Real Estate Transfer Tax, or RETT.
Council members said they plan to ask Aspen voters this May to approve an affordable housing bond.
“I’m curious to see what’s possible given the economy,” said Kasabach, who was appointed to the council last fall after City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss passed away.
“It would be nice if we could build some housing on the land we own,” she said, adding it’s conceivable to capitalize on a slow construction market.
Romero agrees that there is a need for more housing, and he would like to see the city partner with other entities like the fire district, hospital and the schools to build units for their employees.
“Now it’s time to get some strong, concrete action plans,” he said.
There also is some large land-use applications coming before the council for approval, including a project at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side that includes 300,000 square feet of residential and commercial space. Aspen Valley Hospital also is seeking approval for a remodel and expansion.
Kasabach said addressing the city’s historic preservation policy on how to treat old buildings will likely come before the council. A citizen task force has worked on the controversial issue for the past year and is expected to bring forward a recommendation in February.
“That is something we could move on even with the bad economy,” she said.
Ireland said priorities for him include finding efficiencies in the budget, finishing Burlingame and furthering the city government’s environmental agenda. Last year, the city was able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent, he added.
Johnson said whomever takes office in June will have a head start in continuing Aspen’s goal of being an environmental leader.
In 2008, the city government was able to obtain voter-approved bonds to build a hydropower plant, which will be constructed this year.
City officials also have been exploring geothermal opportunities and reworking electric rates so they are based on energy consumption.
“The council that takes office this year will find the city in better shape, environmentally,” Johnson said. “What is great about Aspen government is that it’s forward thinking.”
Johnson said he wasn’t pleased with all of the results in 2008, of which a good portion was spent in a political battle over the costs and management of Burlingame. As a result, little progress was made on other priorities.
“It was a really disappointing year for me,” he said about members of a citizen budget task force who scrutinized the affordable housing project, and accused city government of mismanagement and incompetence. “The animosity and divisions were not helpful.”
Kasabach said she thinks Aspen will be able to weather the upcoming year, as long as tourists continue to book vacations here ” albeit shorter stays ” and the government proceeds conservatively.
“We’ll have to gather information and think big picture on what the community needs versus what it wants,” she said. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”
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