City manager sends staff peace offering
ASPEN City Manager Steve Barwick issued an apology to his 280-plus staff Tuesday for not informing them earlier that he had given a department head lifetime housing.The memo, to all city staff, explains the reasoning behind allowing Public Works Director Phil Overeynder and his wife, Deborah, to live in a city-owned house on the Marolt Open Space for the rest of their lives. Overeynder must work full time for the city for the next five years and then part time for five years, according to an agreement signed May 8. After that, he can enjoy retiring in the house where he’s lived since 1995.His deal is unlike any other city employee’s. The current policy stipulates that if a city employee who lives in city-owned housing resigns, that employee has six months to vacate. There is no retirement housing benefit attached to any employee except Overeynder.The deal came after Overeynder attempted to resign last month to take a similar position in Ukiah, Calif., that paid more and had a better retirement plan. But because Barwick values Overeynder as an employee and didn’t want to lose him, he went to the City Council in a closed-door meeting on May 4 and advised the board that he was going to change the housing policy.Phil and Deborah Overeynder pay $1,540 a month to live at 40176 Highway 82, the only house on the Marolt Open Space. Phil Overeynder is one of the highest-paid employees in City Hall, making about $110,000 a year. He has worked for the city for 15 years.Barwick has defended the unprecedented move, saying it was a simple business decision, and that Overeynder would not be easily replaceable.”The upside of having Phil for 10 years far outweighs the cost of dedicating housing to him,” Barwick told the Times on June 15.But Barwick encountered criticism when the news reached city staff through an article in The Aspen Times instead of from him. City Hall’s human resources director, Rebecca Doane, wasn’t aware of the policy change until after two anonymous tips came to her regarding the decision. Barwick also told Overeynder not to say anything to his colleagues about the deal.In his memo, Barwick wrote: “I regret that my concern about Phil’s privacy and my treatment of this matter as a personnel issue meant that many of you heard about this from the newspapers rather than directly from me. That was a mistake on my part. Please accept my apology.”Barwick and City Attorney John Worcester have said they were justified in meeting in a closed-door session with the City Council because it was a personnel matter. Additionally, Barwick has the authority to make a policy change when it’s warranted, city officials said.The memo to city staff came one day after The Aspen Times requested through attorney Steve Zansberg that the public record from the May 4 executive session be released under the state’s Open Records Act.Barwick’s memo to city staff in its entirety is printed below.
I am writing to clear up some of the confusion and misinformation that resulted from my recent decision to enter into an agreement with Public Works Director Phil Overeynder that allows him to continue renting the home where he currently lives in exchange for his continued employment with the City.First, let me clarify that the newspaper headline (The Aspen Times, June 15) was blatantly incorrect in asserting that Phil is getting free housing. He will continue to rent (not own). The offer that was extended to Phil allows him to rent the Marolt House from the City for as long as he would like, under the condition that he continues to serve as the Citys Public Works Director for the next five years, and, at the Citys option, to work for another five years beyond that for at least 15 hours a week in more of an advisory or special projects capacity.All tenants and owners of Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) affordable housing are allowed to retire and remain in their homes if they have been employed in Pitkin County for a minimum of four years prior to retirement at any time after the age of 65. The Aspen School District allows its employees who own ASD-controlled homes to retire from the District and retain ownership after 15 years of service in the district, without an age restriction. The agreement with Phil allows him to continue to rent after he retires, just as anyone in an APCHA unit would be able to do.We had a discussion with City Council last year about the prospects of allowing City employees to retire and retain ownership of their units. At that time City Council declined to change the current policy, instead directing staff to develop a strategic plan for city employee housing that will prepare us for the next twenty years. A draft plan has been in the works and we look forward to sharing it with you and the new City Council later this year.The City-controlled affordable housing inventory that is available for sale to City employees currently includes three homes on Cemetery Lane and twenty-three units at Water Place. In addition, the City currently has 18 units available to rent: one on the Marolt property, one at the ARC, one at Parks Headquarters, one on the Anderson property and 14 City-priority units at Truscott.As we discussed during the all-employee meetings last fall, there are two projects that will be getting underway soon: five homes at the ABC and three on the Puppy Smith site behind the City electric shop. When those projects are completed we will have a total of 52 housing units for City employees. We absolutely acknowledge the need for more. We realize the importance of affordable housing to our ability to attract and retain a quality workforce now and in the future. There will come a time and in the not too distant future when no one in our organization will be able to purchase housing in the free market not in Aspen and probably not in the Roaring Fork Valley. So, unless we are prepared to pay people unsustainable amounts of money in salary, we will have to continue to build more and more affordable housing units for our workforce.The City Housing Strategic Plan will again include recommendations to City Council regarding the retirement issue and ways to more than offset the number of any affordable housing units that potentially may become unavailable for current employees because they may continue to be used by retirees.Unfortunately, dealing with Phils concerns about post-retirement housing in an effort to retain him and his remarkable contributions to the City couldnt wait until approval of a new housing strategic plan and retirement policy. Phil was under deadline pressure to respond to a job offer in California that paid more, offered a better retirement plan, and provided an opportunity to retire several years from now without worrying about where he and his wife would live. Im delighted that he has opted to continue to dedicate his efforts here for the rest of his career.I acted in a timely and good-faith effort in the best interests of the organization and the community. City Council was notified of the post-retirement rental agreement in executive session because this was a personnel issue involving the commitment of one rental unit in the Citys inventory NOT a rush to judgment on a the larger housing strategic plan and retirement policy issues. I regret that my concern about Phils privacy and my treatment of this matter as a personnel issue meant that many of you heard about this from the newspapers rather than directly from me. That was a mistake on my part. Please accept my apology.We will renew the housing and retirement discussion with City Council later this summer, on the heels of a community-wide Housing Summit to get a handle on current and pending affordable housing issues in the upper valley. We are very concerned about losing any employees who feel the need to move elsewhere while theyre still in the prime of their careers, rather than facing the prospect of retiring without any place to live in Aspen.Thanks for the opportunity to clarify the agreement with Phil, the reasons behind it, and whats happening in the bigger picture of the housing front. Please let me know if you have further questions or concerns about this.Steve Barwick
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Indie folk band Birdtalker is making three Colorado tour stops this weekend starting with Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Friday.