Prioritizing in a COVID-19 world proving difficult for Aspen’s electeds |

Prioritizing in a COVID-19 world proving difficult for Aspen’s electeds

Electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020.
Coronavirus Outbreak

Aspen’s elected officials had some lofty goals for 2020 when they adopted them March 10, but two days later, the city manager declared a state of emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area.

As a result, the focus on affordable housing and child care, along with environmental initiatives and other goals, went by the wayside and new initiatives were adopted April 9 that funneled millions of dollars into relief efforts.

“Everything is turned upside down during COVID,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said last week during a work session that updated council on the status of its original goals and the COVID-19 relief outcomes thus far.

She added that while council’s original goals have been put on the back burner, city staff and officials should be proud of their response to the health and economic crises.

“I can’t imagine that other communities have done more,” Mullins said.

City staff assigned to champion specific council goals had to shift their focus to supporting the city’s response and recovery efforts, or to backfilling for colleagues who had to do so.

Almost 4,000 hours of staff time were spent in direct support of the COVID-19 city incident management team from early March through late June, according to Nathaniel Ross, the city’s management analyst.

That doesn’t include the staff time dedicated to the Pitkin County incident management team from departments like communications, police, environmental health and the quality office.

Roughly two-thirds of the $6 million relief package passed by council has been committed or spent to support small businesses, rent and mortgage assistance for residents, along with financial assistance to the county’s relief fund and child care.

The remaining amount left is mostly dedicated for future housing and child care assistance.

City Manager Sara Ott said council will have to focus future expenditures on moving the community forward with limited resources.

“So the decisions will actually get harder for council going forward that if we should run out of funds … council may have to choose not to fund other things to make everything happen in the community or alternatively whether you want to increase the resources to the program,” she said at council’s July 27 work session.

The latest program to roll out is the city’s small-business loan program, which allows businesses to borrow as much as $30,000 at an 1% interest rate.

Businesses can apply beginning this week, and the city has budgeted as much as $200,000 for what officials hope becomes a revolving loan program that lasts in perpetuity.

The city in June set aside $50,000 toward a gift card program in which 1,500 people who had been eligible for the food tax refund were given $25 gift cards to use at participating businesses as a way to inject money into the local economy.

They had to be redeemed by July 10.

Receipts are still coming in, Mitch Osur, the city’s director of downtown services and parking, said last week. Just over 650 cards had been redeemed with individuals spending an average amount of $70 at area restaurants and retail shops, translating to $42,000 in sales across 31 businesses, Osur said.

Council agreed last week that while its original goal was to analyze opportunities to retain and attract essential, small and local businesses, its COVID-19 relief efforts are doing that at the moment but in a different way than previously envisioned.

With relaxing right-of-way rules and allowing retailers and restaurants into the streets and sidewalks due to public health orders limiting capacity, businesses are thriving and consumers are enjoying the scene, noted Councilman Skippy Mesirow.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said infusing millions into commercial rent relief and other programs with money borrowed against future revenue is what the municipal government is doing to support local businesses.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein agreed.

“Our response to COVID has been very supportive of local business,” he said.

What council also agreed to keep as priorities, albeit at a slower pace due to staffing constraints and COVID-19, are a focus on affordable-housing maintenance and capital reserves for an aging inventory; a waste-management plan to divert solid waste from the landfill; expanding child care facilities; energy conservation in commercial and multi-family buildings; developing a citywide communications strategy; and financing an old storm-water system through either property taxes, development fees or as a utility charge.

What council agreed to drop was evaluating the decision-making authority for the city’s quasi-judicial boards like the planning and zoning and historic preservation commissions, as some believe they wield too much power.

Council also backed off on its plan for staff to establish a financial advisory board to help with affordable housing and other city expenditures.

Richards said the future is too uncertain, so establishing such a committee is premature.

“Everything is topsy-turvy and we don’t have an accurate picture of the future,” she said. “I don’t want to waste anyone’s time and expertise.”

Mayor Torre said the waste-management goal is important to him, and protecting the environment should remain an ethos of the city.

“I know resources, funding and manpower are low, but I’d like to keep it as a priority,” he said. “Environmentalism doesn’t sleep.”

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