Pitkin County commissioners set priorities amid rebound from pandemic

Continued response to COVID-19 tempers projects, expectations for county commissioners in 2021

For the first time in nearly a year, all five Pitkin County commissioners spent time together in the same room last week discussing county priorities for the year.

Not surprisingly, the list included no new projects for 2021, with board members and senior staff preferring to concentrate on several on-going issues including the pandemic, the jail, the airport and changes to the county’s growth management system.

“People are still trying to get through the pandemic,” said Board Chairwoman Kelly McNicholas Kury. “The resources to take on more just aren’t there. The board made a conscious decision about what we think we can and should do well.”

The biggest issue for the board members, who met Tuesday and Wednesday at the Pitkin County Library for their annual retreat, was the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, according to interviews with all five commissioners. That issue alone encompasses many different aspects of present-day life in Pitkin County, including resident vaccinations, the possibility of more financial assistance to residents and businesses and the permanent changes to life as we know it the pandemic has and will spawn, they said.

“Obviously, I think the first half of the year will be responding to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout,” McNicholas Kury said. “But we’re also looking at how we as an organization and a community can come out of this once-in-a-lifetime crisis stronger and better.

“What does that mean about how we offer services? Did we see things that should change? What inequities were laid bare? What can we strengthen for the next crisis?”

Commissioner Francie Jacober, who began her first term in office last month, said discussions touched on equity for service and undocumented workers, whose precarious situations were magnified by the pandemic’s effect on restaurants and other hospitality-related industries. Board members talked about how those workers might have a more robust safety net, she said.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said concerns about the community’s mental and physical health also were near the top of the list.

“The ambient stress level in the community is so high,” he said. “We’re seeing the mental health consequences of that.”

McNicholas Kury said the board would like to prompt a community-wide conversation — perhaps mediated by an outside entity — that looks at all the consequences of the pandemic and how the healing process can be most beneficial.

Next on the list of priorities is the Pitkin County Jail, commissioners said.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo has been sounding the alarm for years about unsafe conditions at the jail, which was built more than 30 years ago for a population that no longer exists. Lately, however, the recent suicide of an inmate and a violent attack by a mentally ill inmate on a deputy has pushed the issue to the forefront of problems that need to be solved now, they said.

“There are life safety issues,” said Commissioner Steve Child. “There are staff safety issues. We need to put a lot of money into the structural issues at the jail to fix that.”

County attorney John Ely is working on an agreement with the Garfield County Jail to house Pitkin County inmates in Glenwood Springs while commissioners figure out a solution. Child said that agreement should be completed soon, though it could be two to three years before a solution to the jail problem comes online, he said.

A new jail is likely to cost around $20 million, and could be located outside of town near the airport. DiSalvo has floated the idea of selling the current jail building behind the Pitkin County Courthouse, an obviously valuable piece of real estate, to help offset the costs.

The Aspen-Pitkin County airport is another on-going project that will continue into this year, commissioners said. The board has directed staff to engage with Federal Aviation Administration officials on plans that were painstakingly hammered out over about 18 months before the pandemic began, while also moving forward with plans to appoint an airport advisory board and hire a new airport director, Child said.

“We need more discussion with the FAA and the airlines,” he said. “We really can’t do the major parts (of the current proposed plan) without that.”

Finally, there’s the proposed changes to the county’s growth management quota system.

Commissioners began discussion on those changes, which could include reducing the maximum size of houses in the county and other measures to slow growth, in the fall. However, after an outcry from property owners and members of the real estate and development community, the process was halted.

Poschman said the board had advertised the prospective changes in local newspapers and held nine weeks of outreach meetings, though the affected communities must have been “distracted” and did not notice what was happening.

“There was such a frenzy in the real estate community and the building community,” he said. “They were all taken by surprise.”

The board now plans to tackle that process on a much grander and slower scale, Poschman said. That process likely won’t begin until late summer or fall, and will include a more deliberate and more inclusive approach, he said.

“We’re going to take a step back,” Poschman said. “We’re going to look at how growth management will affect middle-class homeowners, not just builders. (We’ll look) at how it will affect property and property values and determine what’s impacted and what’s important to the community.”

Commissioners declared a “climate emergency” last year, so many of those decisions will be viewed through that lens, board members said.