Aspen officials defend their record | AspenTimes.com

Aspen officials defend their record

Aaron Hedge
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Touching on a number of topics that have struck emotional nerves throughout the community over the past five years, Aspen officials tried to differentiate the city government from those of other municipalities across the state and country Wednesday.

Kicking off a presentation to the Aspen business community which sought to dispel a number of “myths,” Assistant City Manager Barry Crook said the city has been assailed over the past couple of years based on flawed viewpoints on how it operates.

“We were not gonna sit idly by while people out there in the community make false accusations,” Crook said during the weekly Aspen Business Luncheon, held at the St. Regis.

Among the territory covered in the presentation were: assumptions that Aspen has a higher-than-normal property tax rate, allegations that there is a “culture of secrecy” at Aspen City Hall, and a long string of controversy that has surrounded the first phase of the Burlingame affordable housing development.

Crook said the tax question is off-base, pointing to a mill levy in Aspen that is the third lowest when compared to the other communities in Colorado. And he stressed that the city does not receive all of that cash; other entities like the Aspen School District and Aspen Valley Hospital, which are not run by the city, receive a large portion of those funds.

In a question-and-answer session after the presentation, Aspen resident Mike Maple asked City Manager Steve Barwick, who spoke after Crook, what the tax rate looks like outside of the context of the mill levy, saying the picture might not be the same.

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Barwick said no definitive study had been done on that, adding that it would be a higher figure.

“You’d probably get a higher number” when looking at the entire tax picture, Barwick said.

Addressing the perceived “culture of secrecy,” which was the subject of a speech by City Hall critic Elizabeth Milias, sole blogger for “The Red Ant,” during a similar luncheon event in September, Crook noted that the city is committed to letting the community know what it’s doing. He cited the many public meetings City Hall hosts to discuss policy issues, a new social networking infrastructure the city has created, and recorded votes by city officials and its legally binding requirement to adhere to state open records laws, among other items he said shows the city’s commitment to transparency.

Milias said in her September speech that there were unacceptable errors on a number of city projects, including the May 2009 municipal election, Burlingame, the Castle Creek hydropower project and Barwick’s recent employment contract. She said the city didn’t want the public to know about those things.

Crook said her allegations are not supported by the facts.

“This is the public’s business, and it belongs in the public eye,” he said.

But Crook devoted most of his presentation to the Burlingame development.

Following the disclosure of an error the city made on the brochure for the development in 2007 – one that cited a much loweer cost than what was actually projected – Burlingame became, perhaps, the most controversial of Aspen’s development projects in recent memory.

Milias and her former partner in “The Red Ant,” Marilyn Marks, have since questioned the city’s honesty about the project’s finances.

Crook categorically denied those allegations during his presentation, presenting a calendar of the public meetings held for Burlingame and saying the full budget for the $52 million project has been disclosed to the public.

Other territory Crook covered included the city legal staff’s decision to not release the ballots from the May 2009 election and speculation that the city has too much financial debt. Crook said state law bars the city from releasing the ballots. And he denied the city was mired in debt, saying it is paying off what debt it has.

Barwick followed Crook’s presentation by trying to illustrate the ways he said Aspen city government is “radically different” from other municipalities in terms of efficiency and transparency.

He noted that Aspen was one of the first governments in the state to cut spending, including on salaries and benefits, after the economy entered the recession in late 2008.

ahedge@aspentimes.com