Aspen election 2011: The council candidates speak
ASPEN – Six candidates are in the running for two seats on the Aspen City Council this spring. With the mayor’s post also up for election, the balance of the council is at stake.We’ve asked each candidate a few questions, and readers can see how each individual handled the issues in his or her own way. The answers reveal not only where the candidates stand on certain issues, but also their general approach to questions of policy and governance.Obviously there are many other questions left to ask, many other issues to explore. We urge citizens to keep an eye out for more election coverage in upcoming editions of The Aspen Times, and to tune in to GrassRoots TV (Channel 12) for the Squirm Night election forum at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21, hosted by The Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News. Other chances to see and hear all the candidates in a single sitting are 4-6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20 at the Limelight Lodge, and noon on Friday, April 22 at the Hotel Jerome.Above all else, get out and vote on Tuesday, May 3.
• Erspamer: An initiative I would work toward if elected to the City Council would be to explain to the fellow council members the consequences of issues so they may better perceive the problems and arrive at more practical solutions rather than the contagious illusion of a quick fix to any problem. There are no quick decisions or easy solutions as each decision has deep, peripheral, tragic, unintended consequences that need to be discussed beforehand. I will not allow another BMC debacle wasting valuable housing funds nor allow any development to be approved in the back room without any mitigation. With my education and experience I will focus on keeping the rest of the council better informed of the broad aspects of each issue.• Frisch: I would convene an affordable housing summit in 2011. Aspen needs and deserves a sustainable affordable housing program. To that end, we must have a candid dialogue between city and county leaders and the community to strategize about present and future housing needs and strategies.We have much to learn from what has worked in the past; there is a lot about our affordable housing program that has been successful. Yet, there is always room for improvement. While I am not necessarily a fan of “summits,” the affordable housing issue is of critical importance to our community. The last affordable housing summit was held in 2007 – a completely different era for the local, regional and national economies. Many of the assumptions made back then are no longer valid and, in fact, could jeopardize the future of our program. Given the many financial challenges, changing demographic needs and uncertain economic variables, a variety of community leaders and members should meet to discuss the program’s future so that our housing program will be on a sustainable path. I discuss this issue in more depth in Question 3 below.• Goshorn: I want to promote a program to encourage new businesses with a streamlined process to make information easily obtainable and accurate in a timely manner. I also want that to offer the same for existing businesses that find the zoning and regulations confusing. It should not require you to hire a lawyer to interpret the rules. • Skadron: I think it’s necessary to have a continued emphasis on locally serving businesses and start-ups by protecting the SCI zones and carefully scrutinizing city ordinances that may or may not inhibit growth. I’d like to encourage trades back into town and other non-tourist based economic activities to help diversify our economic base beyond tourism.• Weiss: I will work on more than one initiative. I will work to codify amendment recommendations from the AACP that seek to protect scenic and environmentally sensitive areas from development. I would introduce legislation to roll back the downtown infill code that allows large buildings to change the downtown character. I would narrow the land-use code parameters allowed in PUD and COWOP processes. I would work with the other council members to revise the land-use application process so that council adds to the process and doesn’t simply rehash it. I would change council meetings schedules to not go past 9 o’clock, exhausting the council and the public. I would open dialogue with the community to reprioritize the uses of our tax monies and seek ways to avoid TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) restrictions. I would introduce legislation to offer incentives to build and refurbish Aspen’s lodging product: a redevelopment zone of sorts.• Writer: I have experience in important fields no one else running has. Besides the experience of growing up in Aspen, being a ski bum and doing odd jobs for over 10 years and knowing and living the ski-bum dream, I have helped start a renewable energy company with Steven Conger; started and managed small businesses, developed hotels and fractional projects; developed a wetland mitigation bank; headed a successful $7.5 million capital campaign; been a strong community advocate for affordable housing, including building some and competing for Burlingame.Housing is probably my first initiative, because who we choose to house and who we choose to exclude defines who we are. I like a lot of what I see in the Housing section of the all drafts of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP) with positive references to creating senior opportunities, “diversity,” “opportunity,” “vested interests,” “accountability,” “responsibility,” “appreciation of local identity,” “avoid segregation of economic and social classes” and “build sense of community.” I agree. Problem is, that isn’t the system we have. In the city we have two real estate classes: 1) employee housing and 2) free-market housing; and the aspirational words of the AACP above have nothing to do with our current system. I’ll take the AACP references and seek to add, “creativity,” “entrepreneurship,” “achievement,” “sweat equity,” “prosperity,” “Increased net worth,” “retirement planning” and “freedom.” I want to smash the glass ceiling that eliminates any and all opportunity for those in affordable housing to move up.I want to see Aspen bring back the ski bum. In the old days most of our labor force was here to party and have fun. I would like to see us get that back. Possible? I don’t know, but it starts with low-income rental housing. Not every one coming here wants to buy, like a love affair – we have to start with a date before we jump into marriage.
• Erspamer: During my mayoral campaign in 2009 one of the issues I emphasized was fiscal responsibility of city government. The city government, after a slow start, is doing a better job in becoming more efficient in weathering this economic downturn. This is evident as some departments have far less full-time employees as they use seasonal employees to make up for specific needs. Better management of food costs lowered that expense as well as detailed oversight of many aspects of the budget due to the Budget Committee and staff efforts.• Frisch: The city of Aspen was slow to realize the severity of the economic downturn. While we were certainly not alone in that regard, some of us in the community tried to voice this concern. Nevertheless, it took the city too long to rework its economic projections to reach realistic levels.Our end goal should be to make it as efficient and easy as possible for business to form and remain viable. This is an area where the city has failed to do its job; it is actually impeding the encouragement of new business and the growth of existing ones. It is already difficult enough for local businesses to emerge and flourish given the very high rent structure and seasonality of customer demand. The city’s hefty regulations and fees are daunting obstacles for local businesses. When I talk to local business owners, their No. 1 complaint is that not enough government leaders really understand what it takes to survive – let alone thrive – in our town.• Goshorn: Aspen has done much better than most resort communities because we have built a strong foundation of cooperation with the business community through ACRA, the Aspen Skiing Company and the many strong local non-profits working together to promote a year-round economy.The Skico concert series, X-Games and the fundraising races like Race and Ride for The Cure as well as Boogies Fourth of July race are all strong examples of the cooperation. They all succeed in bringing guests for different reasons. • Skadron: The city has done a good job. At City Hall, we tightened departmental budgets, reduced the employee count, froze wages and approached the budget conservatively without being over-reactive. Today, our budget is balanced, our bond ratings are the envy of nearly every other resort town and the Aspen brand is strong. As a council member directly responsible for budget policy direction, I feel this is one of my most significant accomplishments.Regarding the private sector, we directed the Mining for Ideas initiative as a local economic stimulus program which returned to the local economy nearly $3 million. The initiative launched the songwriter festival, among others, and helped land the USA Pro Cycling Challenge – events that attract guests, encourage return visits, fill vacant rooms, drive local sales and speak to multiple generations, as well as make our town healthy, vibrant and appealing.Additionally, we loaned marketing dollars to ACRA to help support local marketing efforts, and the council backed their effort to increase their marketing funds through an increased lodging tax paid by hotel guests: dollars to be used to grow Aspen’s marketing efforts and bring new business to town.And most recently, under council’s direction, the Community Development Department revised its fee structure to lessen the burden on remodels and many other development projects making it easier for small businesses to grow and improve.• Weiss: The city has a mixed track record. Fewer people vacationing results in less business. Increased money for marketing and allowing restaurants to have outdoor seating downtown were good steps; however, Aspen needs the product, the airlift and the competitive edge.In order to draw more guests, the city should promote the development of new lodging products. If the community wants more affordable hotels, then create a public/private venture for the BMC property or other properties on Highway 82 for a motel and a portion of the property for affordable housing. Properties outside of town offer hotel developers a pro forma that can result in economy priced rooms. We don’t have to change the Aspen brand to attract other market segments. They want to come to Aspen, we just have to offer a product they can afford.The competitive edge also comes from what makes Aspen unique. The city has not done enough to preserve what makes Aspen different. People are drawn to Aspen for our mining heritage, our small-town character with big-town arts and entertainment, the peace and solitude on our trails, the incredible views and the sports. With regards to overseeing affairs, the city does not assist private business endeavors that seek to add to our competitive edge; it meddles, over-regulates and makes any effort to open a business more costly. The city could do a better job of listening to ideas that come from the public. Rather than dismissing an idea out of hand, some ideas have enough merit to warrant the convening of a panel of smart people to flesh the concept out. Some good ideas are lost behind the presentations. I would give some of these ideas more credence and let a group of people help think it through. • Writer: Being the best in the world always provides a competitive edge and a stronger buffer in hard times. Every resort community in the world wants what we have: multi-season business, high-return business, long stays, high spending per capita and an incredible array of events and amenities. In bad times the best falls last and rises first, and it appears as if we are still the best. But Aspen cannot rest and must always seek ways to differentiate itself from the wannabes. I want us to take each component of the Aspen Idea – Mind, Body and Spirit – and convene the leading players in each arena to find out from them on how we can be better in each field. I want us to lead the world in all three aspects, and by doing so the world helps pay for our amazing lifestyle and enriching personal opportunities. There is only one best, and as long as we occupy that slot we will be fine.I have not had the benefit of staff and council budget sessions, nor have I studied the budget in any detail and feel it would be premature for me to take a specific position on the budget. I will say we should take the taxpayers’ trust in us with their money very seriously, leave them knowing that it is not taken away from them to punish them for their accomplishments, nor is it wasted or spent frivolously just because we can. It is instead an investment. An investment in the greatest little community there is. An investment in a place with a tenacious, passionate and resourceful local community determined to protect Aspen, and make it better, thereby improving our “value.”Being open to ideas and giving people the venue to feel comfortable in presenting those ideas is critical and very important to me.
• Erspamer: We are still lagging the effort due to the council creating more redundant studies that duplicate previous efforts. During a recent City Council and Planning and Zoning meeting I asked the council not to have an additional study for the AACP as they are a waste of money because we had enough information already. Unfortunately another study was done at a cost of about $16,000 that just confirmed past studies.The City Council should continue on a year-to-year basis assisting ACRA in their marketing budget but only with definable criteria for success. We need to see a reasonable 52-week marketing plan from ACRA. We also need to continue to host special events as this brings more advertising than anyone could actually afford such as the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and X Games.However there is a point of no return when spending outpaces return on investment. This must be watched very closely as the market is rather finite.• Frisch: The affordable-housing program is a cornerstone of our community. Over the past 18 months, I have served on two important groups focused on this very issue. I am one of two community members of a committee that is working on public/private partnerships for two potential affordable housing rental projects. Also, I am a member of the Housing Frontiers Group, a committee set up by APCHA to address strategic issues facing our affordable housing.I have learned we are now facing a triple threat to the current state of our program: 1) The city has run out of money for future housing projects. All future funding will need to be voted on by the entire community, not just approved by three people on City Council (which is not necessarily a bad thing); 2) more than the challenging economy, stricter lending practices are having a dampening effect on the ability for people to qualify for affordable housing mortgages and; 3) underfunded homeowner association capital reserves are threatening the sustainability of the affordable housing supply in the long term.Over and over again, I hear from many locals that our affordable housing program needs to be reviewed and refined to provide immediate and long-term solutions to ensure its ultimate sustainability.• Goshorn: As a member of the Housing Authority board for the last nine years, I have been actively working to improve the system, including the increased enforcement and tightening the guidelines. The city is not in it alone. The housing program operates under a state statute with an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. To make any changes to deed restriction or guidelines, both elected bodies need to agree to the change and that has been known to take years to make even a small change. The IGA needs to be revisited and renegotiated to make it possible to make improvements or corrections to the system in a more effective and timely manner.Skadron: I’d like the city to review its affordable-housing needs to ensure that housing gets built to support AACP principles and not simply for the sake of building housing. A resident workforce helps build community and provide the services the private sector demands – the primary reason I’ve fought for a healthy and viable affordable-housing program.I think the city could have done more to prevent homeowner association boards from operating with woefully insufficient capital reserves: funds that are needed to safeguard and preserve their homes. And, I think it’s important to familiarize ourselves with the current difficulties in the mortgage-lending markets and to educate lenders about how our deed-restricted properties work.• Weiss: Public/private partnerships developments are getting traction again and are the most efficient and cost-effective way to proceed. The city was overzealous in their land-banking efforts, which depleted the housing fund and left nothing for contingencies. We tried to accomplish too much too fast and without a master plan. The issue with affordable housing capital reserves isn’t new. It was clear that something should be done since the Hunter Creek affordable-housing buildings had to replace roofs and windows around 2003. The city should set capital reserve requirements along with monthly dues for deed-restricted housing projects that are made clear to buyers at the time of purchase. The city should remain a partner in HOA discussions and supplement HOA education.• Writer: “Tweaks?” No. Complete reassessment? Yes.I am so proud of what we have done in employee housing – 2,808 deed-restricted units! But we can do so much better. I think we need more diversity and opportunity in housing. Employee-housing owners bought into this system with blood, sweat and tears. No one “gave” them anything and they worked their patooties off, and made housing sacrifices, to live in this community. And we “reward” them with zero options to get out of the system.Our employee-housing owners have real issues. Residents who live in employee housing are faced by the following problems today: 1) There is a glass ceiling and once they hit it, they have no options to move up, no incentive to save and no market motivation to improve their condition; 2) they are pigeonholed and have no options to own more than APCHA says they need (one person? one bedroom?); 3) it is their home, but they worry if they fix it up they can’t get that money back when they sell; 4) our system promotes retirees staying put in large units often designed for families; I want no part of making them move out, but I do want to figure out how to incentivize them to do so; 5) current policy applying current averages would have us adding another 2,400-plus employee-housing units to the 2,808 we now have. If I owned an older unit I would be worried about selling it at the allowed maximum if I was competing against that many new units; 6) the system is getting clogged up by retirees and it is projected that over 1,000 units will be occupied and under-utilized by retiring baby boomers. For every retiree we can incentivize to “move up” to resident occupied we get a unit in employee housing. And perhaps worst of all; 8) when they do finally sell their EH unit after retiring, they leave our community.I think providing opportunity creates a feeling of optimism and genuine vesting in the homeowner associations and the community. I want to find ways to fix the issues above. I think it will take more than just “tweaking.”
• Erspamer: It’s hard to tell if a department is overstaffed unless someone actually worked inside that department. I feel over the last few years the city has taken appropriate action to address overstaffing. Essential departments such as the police department should not be reduced for the sake of saving money unless it could be proven that there isn’t a need for that many officers. Rather than just cutting the budget there needs to be a system to focus on efficiency of operations. The City Manager’s Office can conduct this research quite easily during the budget meeting with all the department heads.On a related note, the Housing Authority should become its own entity free of failed political influence that has robbed this organization of funds that would have solved most of our housing needs. The Housing Authority would be funded in the same manner as it is today except it would be a separate special district with an elected board of directors.The board should have an appraiser, real estate broker, worker-housing resident and two at-large members. This board would work directly with the Housing Authority. The BOCC and City Council would be given updates on the function from this group on a regular basis.There are other issues that must be improved in the APCHA program such as who conducts appraisals as the new law requires licensed appraisers as well as legal advice for all buyers and sellers. • Frisch: It is easy to criticize government staffing levels, but when discussing personnel issues, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about real people with real families and careers. Having said that, most organizations – private, non-profit and especially government – are reducing their staffing levels. The city of Aspen should not be immune from these changes. Sadly, many of these re-sizing decisions are necessary in light of “the new normal.” Some aspects of the economy, like the boom-boom construction years, will be in remission for much longer than a normal business cycle – not that I miss those days at all. While it is important not to cut too deeply as times are getting better, some changes in our economy are here to stay for the foreseeable future, which may, after careful review, require measured reductions in some city departments.At the end of the day, the City Council must be held accountable for providing the best government services possible with the most value to the community. While council needs to offer a healthy working environment for its employees and treat them with the respect they deserve, council’s responsibilities to the overall community trumps all.• Goshorn: I would need to see actual work plans for any department with staffing lists before I could make an informed comment on any changes the may be needed. That is an important component of the annual budget reviews, but needs to be based on facts and true numbers not impressions.• Skadron: The key here is to find the balance between the level of services the community and guests desire, and the appropriate level of staff needed to provide those services. I think that’s in part dictated by the city budget. While it’s necessary to keep constant scrutiny over staffing levels relative to services, recent layoffs and hiring freezes have helped to find that balance. • Weiss: If I thought a department was overstaffed, I would meet with those who have the knowledge to either justify staffing needs or the power to make changes. The city charter does not give council the power to hire and fire; that is the responsibility of the city manager and the department heads. Council should not be micromanaging departments, but council should give clear direction to city and department management and receive equally clear reporting. Council is city management’s managers. Council has to manage effectively using well-established business practices.• Writer: No. I am not aware of any drastic need to revamp any specific department, but when faced with employee issues I believe in incentive, motivation and creativity. I believe that the entire council should set policy, provide incentive and get out of the way. Stagnation, lack of excitement, lack of accomplishment all lead to a lack of motivation. I believe that the process of trying to get better is far more inspirational than the process of staying the same. We can be so much better on so many fronts but there is this fear that “getting better” is code for getting bigger. I am shocked that many who fear/fight “bigger” are at the same time strong advocates of an employee-housing goal that will virtually double the size of Aspen. How can we be ready for the population they advocate? How will our schools, amenities, and services handle a doubling of the population? Is having the Aspen Recreation Center better than having just a pool? Does it help that the private sector provided the $7.5 million to cover all of the extra costs associated with taking it from just a pool to what it is today? I think everyone is more excited when faced with team challenges to excel and be part of something important, something meaningful, something that makes us better. I would like to see us partner more aggressively with the people and institutions centered around the components of the Aspen Idea – Mind, Body and Spirit – and work with the nonprofit and for-profit sectors to make us better in each of those fields. To be the best in the world at what we do and to continually strive to get better. I would like to see new and expanded facilities and programs that bring more and diverse visitors to our community. I would like to see the city provide enthusiastic leadership and provide assistance in private capital campaigns for the nonprofits to raise the bulk of the funds necessary with as few tax dollars as possible. See my website: scottwriterforcouncil.com.
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