Aspen government employees playing the COVID pivot game

Aspen City Hall.

As part of the city of Aspen’s response to the ever-changing conditions of COVID-19, dozens of employees have had to pivot to other job responsibilities to keep essential services going.

Whether it was staff from the temporarily closed Wheeler Opera House moving to the golf course or employees at the Aspen Recreation Center planting flowers around town, or helping educate the public about the mask-wearing zone, city workers have filled in where necessary.

City Manager Sara Ott and Alissa Farrell, the city’s administrative services director, began moving positions like pieces of a giant puzzle almost immediately after the municipal government declared a state of emergency March 12.

It was a move that was better than the alternative.

“I provided direction to reassign people in lieu of laying them off,” Ott said. “As a leader and as an employer it was my responsibility.”

That’s not to say that there haven’t been layoffs, which hovered around 55 as dwindling sales tax revenue was trickling into departments like parks and recreation.

So instead of staffing as many as 500 or 600 employees in the summer with seasonal, part-time and intermittent positions that are paid largely through the parks department, the city stayed closer to its 300 full-time staff.

Farrell said she began by asking department heads if they could spare any employees and then matched their skill sets as best she could with open positions.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our staff in such a crisis,” she said. “They’ve been really resilient and agile.”

When parking became free in town during the first few months of the pandemic, parking officers had nothing to enforce, so three of them volunteered to go to the parks department, said Mitch Osur, the city’s director of parking and downtown services.

“I’d rather have people working than not,” he said. “I think (Sara) handled that pretty well.”

About 30 staff members moved to different areas, and some of them are returning to their original jobs in a more permanent way now that the city is adjusting to existing with the virus.

But those employees now do their regular jobs, plus some pandemic work, like Nathaniel Ross, the city’s management analyst, who has reviewed more than 700 COVID-10 business safety plans.

As part of the city’s $6 million COVID-19 relief and recovery program, many department heads had to begin rolling out new initiatives like $25 gift cards distributed to residents, or outdoor dining in the right of ways and economic stimulus to businesses and nonprofits, Ott said.

“They are big lifts,” she said. “I’m proud of the staff for rising to the occasion.”

Ott said where there was a need employees stepped up, like Michelle Bonfils Thibeault, who moved from the capital asset department to community development, to help process the influx of building permit applications.

“From March 15 to July 14, we had 425 new applications equaling $388 million worth of projects,” Ott said. “We really thought it was going to slow down.”

They will have to continue in that kind of fashion as the months wear on with COVID-19 in the community and an unknown ski season ahead.

“We hope we can take a deep breath in the offseason and prepare for the winter,” Ott said. “How do we manage ski season?”

Also on her and Farrell’s mind is how and when to start opening city buildings and calling people back to their offices.

“We are reassessing our back-to-work plan,” Farrell said. “We are being intentional and methodical on the re-entry and bringing staff back.”

Department heads also are working on their 2021 budgets, which they’ve been asked to plan for 0% growth, which is the best-case scenario, as well as 5% and 10% reductions.

“Our goal is to keep people,” Farrell said. “We’ve realized that we can pivot.”

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