Aspen’s booming budget
How can a city of some 6,300 residents need a $101.6 million budget?Well, the city is Aspen.The price of many things, stratospheric by real-world measures, hardly raise an eyebrow in a resort where the price of a three-bedroom residence averaged $1.5 million in 2005.The city government’s budget is but one indicator of Aspen’s split personality – the small mountain town where locals greet one another at the post office, but where private jets clog the airport at Christmastime. Few towns with a permanent population of 6,368 swell to 25,000 or 30,000 people a day when they’re busy. And few expect to realize tax revenues of more than $30 million this year.Fewer still have a total budget that equates to almost $16,000 per permanent resident.In Aspen, city government is big business, at least by most other similarly sized community’s standards. The city payroll includes 260 positions and most are full-time employees.And yet, few citizens question the size or scope of their government. Two months worth of Aspen City Council meetings, at which various department budgets are scrutinized, rarely draw spectators beyond those directly affected – namely the supervisors and staffs of those departments or someone requesting a special allocation. The formal public hearings on the budget are likewise roundly ignored.Twenty years ago, the City Council adopted a total budget of $26.9 million, including $10.7 million for government operations. No one much raised an eyebrow then, either, according to Pat Fallin, a Basalt resident who served on the council at the time.”I remember a lot of controversies then, but the budget wasn’t one of them,” she said.Still, Fallin expressed shock at the 2006 budget sum adopted by resolution in late November.”I can tell you in 1986, I didn’t think in 20 years they would pass a $100 million budget,” she said. “It’s a lot of money, no matter how you look at it.”
To be fair, the city doesn’t plan to spend $101.6 million on government operations this year.The sum reflects $17 million in transfers between city funds, along with about $40.5 million for operations, $8 million in debt payments and $36 million in capital expenses – mostly on the construction of the Burlingame Ranch employee housing, budgeted at $23.2 million in 2006.The debt, capital costs and operations add up to $84.5 million in actual spending, but it won’t all be spent as the year progresses, predicted finance director Paul Menter.The 1986 budget total reflected $10.7 million in operating expenses, about $4.9 million in debt costs, about $6.3 million in capital expenses and $5 million allocated for a special improvement district.What has happened in the two-decade interim is a reflection of both the community’s expectations and the high cost of doing business here, or “obscene growth in city government,” depending on one’s point of view.”It represents a big change in the scope of city government,” surmised Tom Isaac, a city councilman in 1986 and now Pitkin County’s assessor. “I don’t know why it has grown so much.”
City officials cite everything from the cost of paying employees competitive wages in a valley with a high cost of living to the expectations of both local residents and tourists drawn to what is increasingly a high-end ski destination.Although citizens rarely take part in the city’s budget deliberations, Mayor Helen Klanderud said she’s heard from constituents who are aghast at the size of the city’s budget.”They attribute it to a growth in government, but I don’t know what that growth in government means,” she said.A lot of it is endorsed by the electorate, from the construction of Burlingame and the Aspen Recreation Center to the approval of taxes that allow expansion of the city’s trail system and open-space holdings.In November, for example, city voters endorsed a ballot measure allowing the city to keep excess property tax revenues and spend them on several specific projects in the coming years.In fact, local voters endorsed various ballot measures – in addition to the city’s tax question – that will affect their pocketbooks, Klanderud noted.”I think it was rather astounding that, other than the Snowmass Town Hall, voters approved every tax measure on the ballot, and by a significant margin,” Klanderud said, interpreting the results as a signal of confidence in government and its actions.The city’s conservative fiscal policies recently helped boost its already-strong bond rating to the highest of any resort community in the country, Menter added.And while city services have increased substantially in the past 20 years, much of the growth is community-driven, said Councilwoman Rachel Richards.”I think most of these expenses are scaled for the economy of this resort and this community’s priorities,” she said.The city’s Canary Initiative, launched last year with the goal of addressing Aspen’s impact on global warming and with a $244,014 price tag in 2006, is a case of the city doing something because it can, Richards said.”I think that’s responsible government,” she said.
But former Mayor Bill Stirling, in office when the council passed the 1986 budget, wonders if city government isn’t trying to do too much, even as he concedes the demands Aspen makes of its government have increased.However, a nearly fourfold increase in the total budget over two decades far outpaces inflation during that period, he added.”That’s an obscene growth in government, Stirling said. “It feels to me like the government is just bulging at the seams.”Stirling, first elected in 1983, said he remembers taking office with the intention of cutting back on government.”I started into cutting the budget right a way and found it to be very, very difficult,” he conceded.Stirling said the council managed to trim some extraneous expenses and eliminate one position. While he acknowledged the challenge of separating the necessary from the not-so, he wonders if the present-day administration is even trying.”It feels to me like it’s too big,” he said. “It feels to me like when something is proposed for expansion, is anybody saying, ‘Is this really necessary?'”
An examination of a handful of city departments reflects an expansion of both services and costs.• In 1986, the city’s share of the joint city/county Data Processing Department budget was $93,817. In 2006, the city’s share of the now-Information Services budget is $581,816.”In ’86, we basically had one small mini-computer that serviced maybe half a dozen major departments,” recalled Jim Considine, current Information Services director. The system served roughly 60 accounts at City Hall and the county courthouse.Now, the department has a computer network that extends to some 20 buildings and contains roughly 600 accounts.”Almost every individual employed by the city has a network account,” Considine said. Most have a personal computer as well.• The city’s share of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s budget was $44,100 in 1986. This year, it’s $170,254.Twenty years ago, the housing office’s performance objectives included facilitating the sale of 24 units and reviewing and qualifying 230 applicants for sale or rental housing.There were 264 applicants for one project alone in 2005 and the office handled 105 sales. It qualified or requalified more than 1,000 applicants in all, according to Cindy Christensen, housing operations manager.• The Parks Department has a $2.2 million operating budget this year, compared to $602,222 in 1986.”Growth is part of the reason we’re larger than in 1986, but also inflation and a broader spectrum of what’s expected of us,” said Jeff Woods, parks director. In 1986, the parks staff peaked at about 24 people in the summer months, according to Tom Rubel, then a parks maintenance worker. Now Rubel is operations superintendent, overseeing a staff of 61 in the summertime.Parks staffers work until 10 p.m. daily in the summer, emptying trash containers on the malls, for example. The department picks up more trash and dog litter than it used to, handles more special events at its parks, and plows 10 miles of paved trails that didn’t exist in 1986. It handles everything from planting trees and designing and building wetlands to keeping weeds in check on the city’s expanding open-space holdings and maintaining an extensive irrigation system. The department has four employees assigned to the latter task; in 1986, it was a part-time job for one individual, Rubel said.• Recreation programming has also exploded, with the budget jumping from $243,539 in 1986 to about $1 million today, plus another $2 million to run the Aspen Recreation Center.The Aspen Recreation Center, which opened in 2003, requires 13.5 full-time employees and part-timers who add up to the equivalent of another eight full-time workers.While some city functions are heavily subsidized with tax revenues – recreation, for example – others essentially pay their own way.• The Water Department forecast $575,437 in expenses in 1986. This year, its operations will cost a projected $2.5 million, covered by fees customers pay for water and to hook up to the system.• The city’s Planning Department budgeted $287,320 in expenses in 1986, a figure that drew a chuckle from Chris Bendon, head of what is now the Community Development Department. The Building Department had a $184,515 budget in 1986.Bendon’s budget includes 5.5 new positions this year in response to Aspen’s current building boom, but the fees paid by developers for planning and building services more than cover the combined building/planning department’s $1.9 million in operating expenses for 2006, Bendon said.Community Development’s growth is a response to what’s happening in the community, according to Bendon. Everything from kitchen remodels to the development of a new hotel involves his staff on some level. Still, the department turns around building permit applications in two to three months, said Bendon, citing a California community where the process can take up to a year.”That would not fly here,” he said. “If that happened, people would be screaming bloody murder.”Other department initiatives are a response to demands from the City Council or the public. Bendon’s staff developed a lighting code a few years ago, for example, in response to community concerns about light pollution’s effect on starry Aspen nights.
On the revenue side of the equation, the city’s 2006 budget’s projected revenues overall will more than cover its expenses. “The budget is balanced,” said finance director Menter. On both the revenue and the expense side, Aspen’s budget is stunning at first glance, admitted Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss, newly elected last spring. He found the numbers justifiable though, after scrutinizing them thoroughly for the first time.”As a city, we provide a lot of services that other towns of comparable size wouldn’t be in a position to provide,” he said. “I doubt you would see as many people working on a downtown mall on a snowy day as you see in Aspen.”In terms of population, I don’t know how different we are than Rifle, but you wouldn’t see anything like that going on in Rifle.”Rifle, by the way, has a population of about 8,000 and a total 2006 budget of $21.2 million.The budget in nearby Basalt is even smaller – $4.5 million, according to Town Manager Bill Efting, who spent 11 years in Aspen government, starting in 1986 as the recreation director. He was Aspen’s assistant city manager when he left to work as the town manager for Avon for six years.”When you look at the city of Aspen’s budget, you could compare that probably to a town of 100,000 or 150,000 instead of a town of 6,000,” he said. “But in Aspen, you will deal with the problems of a town of 100,000.”Not many small towns grapple with a crush of private jets fighting for landing slots or complex development applications for luxury hotels, Efting noted.For a city administrator, it’s an educational experience.”Working in Aspen is like going to grad school,” Efting said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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