Aspen council approves $85M budget
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday adopted an $85 million budget for 2011 that shows “reserved optimism,” according to one councilman.
The budget assumes a 3 percent increase in city sales tax revenues, which, for the most part, “recovered modestly in 2010 after a very tough year in 2009,” wrote Finance Director Don Taylor in his memo to the council. “Sales tax is modestly up after the precipitous drop in 2009.”
As a result, the 2011 budget includes a partial restoration of employee benefits, which were slashed to help balance the budget in 2009. According to Taylor, on average, $1,340 in benefits per employee was cut; the 2011 budget restores approximately $475 per employee in a combination of benefits.
“I see reserved optimism in this budget, and in the direction we are heading,” said Councilman Dwayne Romero.
The 2011 budget maintains existing service levels. It also includes $1.08 million in new funding requests, with the two largest line items therein being $500,000 for the housing office to repurchase foreclosure units so they can be put back in the employee housing pool and the city repaid, and $145,300 for the Wheeler Opera House to produce three new festivals.
Along those lines, council members discussed whether the city should continue to fund the “Mining for Ideas” marketing and special events campaign in a supplemental budget allocation of $100,000, half the amount budgeted for the program in 2010.
“I support this,” said Councilman Derek Johnson. “I like the signal it sends to the community, and I believe we found the goals we had set for the program were met.”
Fellow Councilman Steve Skadron was not sold on continuing the program, however, expressing concern that it would become a perpetual line item, and that, perhaps, the city was holding its own in the special events arena without the additional expenditure of public monies.
The council also discussed the city’s capital projects expenditures, including a $2 million renovation of the Wheeler basement and leased spaces, as well as a $650,000 field turf project. Though unanimously approved, Mayor Mick Ireland and council members did say they wanted more information on these projects and ongoing progress reports.
Lastly, council members approved the 2011 mil levy at a rate of 3.854, making the total property tax on par with the previous year at just under $6.5 million. It was a decision that had a least one community member questioning why the mil was not lowered, as other revenue sources appear to be gaining traction.
“As we look ahead, I would suggest our total property tax should be going down,” said Aspen resident Mike Maple.
To which Ireland responded: “OK, so what services would you want us to cut?”
Maple replied, “I am quite confident we have great services … but there is not a single service that cannot be cut. As a resident, I would not only be comfortable with that, I would appreciate it.”
Again, Ireland responded with a question: “If people want a smaller, leaner government, tell us where to make it smaller, leaner. Where do you want us to make cuts?”
ASPEN – Aspen’s elected leaders, unsatisfied with the kind of information they got Monday regarding changes to the city’s fees for programs and services, demanded more data.
City Finance Director Don Taylor had barely started presenting the proposed fee schedule for 2011 before Councilman Steve Skadron said he wanted to see figures showing what the fee schedule looked like this year and how it compares to the proposal for next year.
Much of the thick sheaf of pages outlining the proposed 2011 fees does not include the 2010 fees for comparative purposes, though the current fee schedule is available for review on the city’s website; it’s online under the city clerk’s department, within the “administration” title, Section 2.12.010.
A quick comparison of the proposal with the website shows that, for example, passes to the city golf course would rise considerably, from $1,000 for a season pass to either $1,899 for a “platinum” pass, $1,275 for a “gold” pass or $725 for a “silver” pass. The 20-punch pass would rise from $475 this year to $575 in 2011.
Recreation fun pass prices, on the other hand, would go up only slightly under the proposal. In the case of a youth resident monthly pass, which last year cost $45.50, in 2011 it would cost $46. For a family, a resident pass would rise from $164 to $166. Resident annual passes would see a similar rise in cost.
Skadron’s remarks were seconded by Councilman Dwayne Romero. “We need a truly comprehensive managers’ assessment” of the proposal, he told Taylor.
“I’m looking for more reasons why … I’m looking for more background,” Romero said.
Aspen residents are still are reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, he said, and likely would look somewhat askance at fee increases without complete explanations.
Councilman Derek Johnson agreed. He said that while in many departments it seems that increases have been held to 3 percent, some departments are asking for much larger increases.
Romero said, and Taylor confirmed, that increases in fees charged by the community development department “represent the bulk of the increases.” But Romero also cautioned against raising the fees for smaller projects, typically undertaken by a homeowner interested in relatively minor changes.
Taylor, looking for a way to keep the fee schedule review moving forward, suggested that the community development portion of the fee schedule be considered separately, explaining that the department’s fees had not been changed in years. The council, however, asked him to have a presentation ready for the next council meeting on Dec. 6.
Mayor Mick Ireland, agreeing that more information is needed before the council can give the matter the necessary scrutiny, noted that “it’s long been a principle in Aspen that development should pay its own way.”
He wanted to know from the community development department whether this fee schedule accomplishes that.
Chris Bendon, director of the community development department, said earlier Monday that the fee schedule is increasing.
“We want to make sure that the costs of delivering building and planning services go to the right person,” he said.
In some cases the city’s general fund absorbs some or all of the costs of such services, while in other cases the customer pays the fees entirely, Bendon said.
And his department had held to an average 3 percent fee increase over the years until 2007, he said, but now is taking a closer look to see if the entire fee schedule needs to be revamped.
One of his goals is to ensure “that fees for smaller projects are not increased disproportionately” when compared with large subdivisions, which echoed Romero’s statements at the council meeting later that day.
Bendon said he hopes to have the analysis, and any proposed changes, ready for the council’s Dec. 6 meeting. The discussion could spill over into the new year as that meeting will be the last regular council meeting of 2010.
— By John Colson
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