City feels sticker shock by pricey public process
In some respects, Aspen has only itself to blame when the cost of public projects zooms upward.
Part of the problem, according to city administrators, is the public process. The taxpayers pay the price for protracted reviews, during which both citizens and various city committees repeatedly tweak designs and send consultants back to the drawing board.
Private developers have long grumbled about how long it can take and the hoops they must jump through to get a project approved in the city and Pitkin County. The city itself is not immune to the problem, say city officials.
“These protracted processes are costing us about 1 percent per month,” city assets manager Ed Sadler told the City Council last week. And the city can end up paying $2,000 to $3,000 per meeting for consultants’ time, not to mention the extra dollars that are shelled out for redesign work, he said.
And the delay in actual construction that results when a project gets bogged down in the review process costs money too, said Sadler, noting the 10 to 15 percent annual increase Aspen is experiencing in construction costs.
“Every dollar spent on meetings, designs, planning and studies is one less dollar available to build the project,” noted Sadler in a memo to the council.
“I really feel it’s time to re-examine the process,” said City Manager Steve Barwick.
The various city commissions that review projects should give policy guidance to staffers and leave the design details to the staff and consultants, he said.
Sadler has recommended the city attempt to streamline the process by setting specific timeframes for public input and review by the city’s various boards. Depending on the project, proposals may need approvals from a dozen entities, including commissions, city departments and the City Council, he said. In addition, some boards will review a project twice, giving it conceptual and then final approval.
Sadler said city staffers need to do a better job of making review committees and the public aware of budget constraints and the cost of changing projects in midstream.
“Too many of the committees say, `Budget is not our problem.’ What we get is, `Add this, add this, add this,'” Sadler told the council. “I think it needs to be a consideration because it ultimately is a consideration for you.”
Jamie Knowlton, a member of the city’s Asset Planning Committee, said the group directed Sadler to draft a memo to the council outlining the problem because members were frustrated to see a couple of city projects expand considerably beyond their original budgets.
“It seemed to us the city was tempted to spend more money than it had,” said Knowlton, relating the committee’s frustration with the mounting cost of the Iselin Park recreation complex and the Truscott Place redevelopment. The committee advises the City Council on fiscal matters.
The $17 million Iselin Park project is a good example of how much a project can expand during its review, noted Sadler in his memo.
What started out as a new swimming pool for $4 million is now a complex that includes two swimming pools and future plans for a third one, a privately funded ice rink, sauna, Jacuzzi, locker rooms, snack bar and lobby, several hundred seats, offices and a new youth center.
“Very seldom, if ever, does a public constituency group want less in a building and its ancillary features. They always want more,” he wrote.
“The line is, `This is Aspen – we need to do it first class,'” said Mayor Rachel Richards, conceding it can be difficult to keep a tight leash on both the review and the scope of a project.
“I think there has been an unwillingness, especially in the housing end, to say, `Well, that’s all we can afford,'” she said. That’s because the employee housing program always seems to be judged on its most recent project, she added.
Councilman Tony Hershey was quick to agree the council and its commissions shouldn’t get bogged down in design details.
“This job is not micromanaging every little thing from the color of the windowpanes to the shape of the trees out front,” he said.
To some degree, though, the city can’t put too tight a clamp on public input, said Richards.
“You can’t eliminate public input in the name of expediency, but you can’t let it drag on for nine months, either,” she said.
City officials are hoping the new review process for public projects will help. Already in use for the proposed Burlingame Village housing project, the process brings together members of the public and various city boards to put a proposal together that will go directly to the council for approval.
For Burlingame, the process is expected to take about a year. The task force held its first meeting last month.
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Pitkin County Health Department has put together a “Frequently Asked Questions” guideline for its new Traveler Affidavit Requirement, which starts Dec. 14.