City works to regain public trust |

City works to regain public trust

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” In order for voters to feel confident that city government isn’t going to squander away tens of millions of dollars to build the rest of Burlingame Ranch, several financial and management controls will have to be established.

That’s the upshot of recommendations the housing subcommittee of the Citizen Budget Task Force will make to the Aspen City Council on Monday.

After two months spent poring over discrepancies with city financiers regarding the costs associated with the first phase of Burlingame, members of the task force on Wednesday agreed to finalize their recommendations.

They hope the controls adopted by the City Council will regain the public’s trust, especially since Aspen voters this fall will be asked to approve as much as $75 million in bonds to build phases two and three of Burlingame Ranch, an affordable housing development across from Buttermilk where about 100 people already live.

“Credibility with citizens on the vote is sort of the immediate issue here,” said task force member Peter Fuchs.

The firestorm over Burlingame flared up in April after it was discovered that a city-produced brochure distributed to citizens shortly before a May 2005 vote on the project didn’t account for nearly $73 million in costs. That’s because the brochure only included the actual construction of the buildings ” not the land, infrastructure and a host of changes made by previous City Councils.

“We feel that the public trust has been depleted,” said Ward Hauenstein, a member of the housing subcommittee.

In the future, the community should decide on whether capital improvement projects developed by city government ought to include below-ground costs as well as above-ground construction so expenses can be compared evenly, said housing subcommittee member Don Davidson.

Earlier recommendations by the task force, which are already under way, include a performance audit and a financial audit of Burlingame by outside companies. Their findings, which will determine if there are larger discrepancies in costs and expenses, as well as how the city government performed as a developer, are expected in late July or early August.

City officials hope the auditors’ reports will be ready to be presented at a special town hall meeting on Burlingame, scheduled for July 29.

A committee of construction experts also has been convened, which will make a recommendation later this summer on how to build out Burlingame more economically and efficiently. That will likely include building dozens more units in an effort to bring the costs down.

And even if a plan is not in place and the controls aren’t completely executed by Election Day, the task force doesn’t want to “hold the bond hostage.” Members of the task force agreed that the financing should be secured regardless of whether the money is ready to be spent immediately on a detailed plan.

“I have no idea what’s credible to the voters, but if the city waits to do the bond to get all this done it will be five years,” said task force member Maurice Emmer. “What message is practical to bring to the voters?”

The task force has recommended that an industry expert review the budget of the second and third phases of Burlingame before a contract to build it is executed.

An expert also should assess future affordable housing management needs and resources to ensure that city employees are capable and experienced enough to oversee development projects, according to the task force.

Another recommendation is to develop a routine semi-annual reporting procedure for informing elected officials and the public on the progress of large capital improvement projects against their initial budgets.

The development and implementation of processes to ensure the accuracy of voter information as it relates to financial projections issued by city government also is a key recommendation.

“The sweeping theme here is to restore the public’s trust,” Emmer said.

The citizen budget task force was initially formed to oversee different aspects of the city government’s finances. A few subcommittees have morphed out of the larger task force, including the housing subcommittee, which is expected to make more recommendations on Burlingame, as well as the affordable housing program in general.