Aspen owns up to gaffe on Burlingame
ASPEN ” Elected officials on Tuesday apologized to Aspen voters if they felt misled when they approved affordable housing at Burlingame Ranch based on information provided by the city government that underestimated the cost by at least $73 million.
The response by the current Aspen City Council and former Mayor Helen Klanderud comes after it was discovered earlier this month that a 2005 campaign brochure touting Burlingame Ranch said it would cost $74.3 million in total, with the overall taxpayer subsidy being $14.7 million. That included all three phases of building 236 units. Only phase one has been completed.
But in reality, city officials said last week that taxpayer subsidy is $85.5 million ” nearly a six-fold increase.
That number most likely will change again, according to Barry Crook, business process manager at City Hall, depending how high construction bids come in and how the City Council decides to proceed with future development on the property, located across from Buttermilk.
No one in City Hall can say with certainty where the number in the brochure came from, although City Manager Steve Barwick suspects it came from the original construction bid from Shaw Construction. It didn’t include land, infrastructure and other costs associated with the project.
Crook said an error in language in the brochure accounts for $25.3 million of the massive increase in the total cost of Burlingame. Construction inflation accounts for another $32.9 million and City Council changes to the project account for $11.8 million, according to Crook.
And no one in City Hall can say who signed off on the content in the brochure, which was distributed to hundreds of Aspen voters.
However, city officials and elected leaders said the mistake wasn’t intentional.
“It was never my intention to deceive or mislead anyone,” said Klanderud, who was in office during the Burlingame votes in 2000 and 2005. “I am perfectly willing to accept responsibility on any statements that misled [voters]. … There was no attempt to not be transparent.
“I think an error is the best thing to call it.”
Mayor Mick Ireland said although he wasn’t on City Council nor were his fellow councilmen, he acknowledges mistakes have been made.
“I apologize to the community and to those who felt misled by the campaign literature,” he said. “I’m sorry to anyone who read those figures and believed it.”
City Councilman Dwayne Romero ” who along with his colleague Steve Skadron wrote memos to the council asking for an independent audit of costs associated with Burlingame ” said accountability and transparency from city government is crucial.
As a result of the Burlingame boondoggle, concerns of public confidence and trust are real for elected officials who want to build more affordable housing but need voter approval in the coming years.
City officials plan to ask voters this fall to approve up to $75 million in bonds to finish the development. But because the costs have increased so dramatically, elected officials acknowledge that voters might be reluctant to approve funding for phases two and three at Burlingame.
Officials agreed that placing blame on who’s responsible for the brochure or dwelling on it will not be helpful in moving forward.
“That was then, this is now,” Klanderud said. “How do we move forward?”
Moving forward consists of the City Council accepting some of the recommendations presented by a council-appointed citizen budget task force and its housing subcommittee, which first began asking questions about the cost discrepancies last month. No one on the task force or the subcommittee has suggested malfeasance or deception on the part of city government.
Rather, some task force members believe that there wasn’t enough oversight on the development of Burlingame, especially considering that city officials have given several different figures to the public concerning taxpayer subsidies.
“The appropriate concern for the community is: Where are we and where are we going?” said Mike Maple, a budget task force member. He added that every successful development project is measured against a budget on a daily basis. The fact city officials couldn’t give a clear number from the outset concerns him and other task force members.
“My concern is how are we going to spend [future] money,” Maple said.
The council agreed to using the city government’s CPA to audit the first phase of Burlingame, as well as hiring a consultant to analyze the cost differences that city staffers have presented. Another consultant will review plans for phases two and three, as well as the costs attached to the plans.
In addition, Barwick said he has formed a committee of experts that include developers, builders, lawyers, business leaders and a host of other community members to help develop new systems that will produce a better affordable housing product at a lower cost.
The work by all of those individuals should be complete by the end of the summer, which will be near the deadline to put language on the ballot for a November bond question.
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A recent survey of Aspen residents shows that people are happy here, feel safe but are financially insecure.