Aspen City Council candidates discuss government assistance during COVID-19 crisis

Eight candidates vying for two open seats on City Council offer their views on what government’s role is in COVID-19 response

Staff reports
Collage of the Aspen City Council candidates 2021. Top row from left: Sam Rose, Erin Smiddy, Casey Endsley, John Doyle; second row from left: Ward Hauenstein, Jimbo Stockton, Mark Reece, Kimbo Brown-Schirato.

Editor’s note: The Aspen Times has posed five questions of each of the eight Aspen City Council candidates running for two open seats in the March 2 election. We will run answers (200-word limit) to one question each day this week. To read their previous responses and to get their background, go to Coming Thursday: If you get elected, what are your top three priorities during the four-year term?


Day 3 question: What do you think should be the city’s role in financially assisting local businesses during the pandemic?

Kimbo Brown-Schirato

The city of Aspen had a wonderful response in the early pandemic called the rent relief program that provided relief as follows: one-third rent paid by the city, one-third rent paid by the tenant, one-third rent relief by landlords (if they chose to participate).

It was relatively speedy, simple and an amazing example of an effective public-private partnership. ACRA, private funders, the county and the city all put resources into this effort.

This is a great example of the entire community rallying to support each other. Due to our current funding sources, we are incredibly fortunate to be in this position.

Going forward, a lot of pressure could be alleviated if business owners knew that there would be an auto-renewal of rent relief during Red closures.

Leveraging city funds to encourage the community to step up and support local businesses, like the recent Meridian Jewelers matching program, should be explored.

Most importantly, we need to be continuously in touch with our small business owners, asking “how can we be of service?”

John Doyle

The city should continue to support local businesses through the rent-sharing program that shares the cost of rent on some properties with the landlord, the tenant and the community each paying a third.

The gift cards used at the end of the past year could be reissued. I think the city should do more to regulate the VRBO industry; they have an unfair advantage in many ways over our local lodges.

Casey Endsley

The city’s role in helping businesses is probably best realized in supporting the opening and continuation of day-to-day productivity in Aspen. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, we want to give a hand out to help but it ends up delaying our recovery.

These businesses have complied with the closure and operated at limited capacity long enough. I would rather handle financial assistance on a case-by-case basis instead of a blanket payout. I would bet most places would just prefer to get back to work.

Ward Hauenstein

The stability and sustainability of Aspen’s economy depends on the survival of local businesses. When businesses are open, employees are working and incomes support families. In unprecedented times the government should establish programs to use tax dollars to assist businesses.

The city created a $6 million assistance package. There is a revolving loan program and a rent relief grant program. The rent grant program required the landlord to participate. We borrowed $2.5 million from the Wheeler Opera fund to be repaid from the general fund over 10 years.

We consciously encumbered the general fund for the future to provide aid to businesses and citizens now. We will have to rein in future spending in an attempt to save our economy.

Spending city funds should be the last resort. Federal, state and private assistance should be the first source of funding. The city has cooperated and coordinated with the county and state to optimize available funds.

We have funded the county programs and worked with the Aspen Community Foundation to deliver assistance.

The city should always be looking for new ways to assist those that have been affected by the pandemic.

Mark Reece

Very difficult decisions were made that greatly affected local businesses. To me, blaming the city for financial issues is no different than blaming the council for the disease itself.

There is no perfect answer during these unprecedented times, but I believe there are solutions we can find without blame, especially in a place as financially and intellectually wealthy as Aspen.

Sam Rose

The best way to financially assist restaurants is to keep them open. Most business owners who I have spoken to would prefer to be in business generating revenue than looking for a handout.

That said, it is the government’s responsibility to use tax dollars to help however they can to offset their loss of revenue, as well as assist their employees for their loss of earnings created by imposed restrictions and closures.

Besides direct financial relief, we could be assisting businesses in help covering the costs of CO2 meters, HVAC retrofitting, outdoor heating, etc., whatever helps them continue creating revenue to pay their employees.

If we did a better job communicating the benefits of contact tracing and enforcement of other methods of identifying and limiting the virus spread we could keep our businesses operating at higher levels of capacity and live in a safer and less fearful community.

If elected, I hope to expand on these ideas to help guide Aspen safely through the remaining days of the pandemic while ensuring that we remain open for business.

Erin Smiddy

I’m a big believer in proper spending of a budget. It’s been hard for me to watch how our taxpayer money has been spent somewhat loosely over the years. A $600,000 sidewalk by the jail, a $300,000 study to expand the Castle Creek Bridge sidewalk, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on outside consultants to tell us what’s best for our small town, all unnecessary in my opinion.

I would like to see more funds put aside for unforeseen incidents such as COVID-19 or economical downfalls. It broke my heart to watch the Red Onion close, again.

I would like to see our ability to protect the small businesses that are not owned by retail chains or big money corporations from out of town. There are so few businesses left that were here 10 years ago and that is not right.

We should be prioritizing our local workforce in any way possible.

Jimbo Stockton

Look to see if there’s more money available at the state and federal levels.

Allocate more funds from the city budget. Make sure all the money that was supposed to go to local businesses in the first lockdown actually got there. What about the Wheeler Fund? I would also make sure our locally owned businesses got money and additional help before the internationally-owned businesses.

I would also help businesses create better outdoor dining, more outlets for electric heaters, and build pavilion-style structures in the middle of our pedestrian malls.