Rumbling over Burlingame has begun
ASPEN ” It appears the political battle lines have been drawn for one, and perhaps two, upcoming Aspen city elections, as a result of the controversy swirling around the Burlingame affordable housing project.
Ever since it was discovered this past spring that a 2005 city brochure about Burlingame was off in total costs by $73 million, critics of Aspen City Hall have come out of the woodwork.
Whether the critics are a loud minority or represent a far-reaching groundswell of government distrust is debatable. But city officials realize that, to some degree, the error in the brochure has eroded the government’s credibility. They also realize it will be an uphill battle convincing voters this November to approve a planned $50 million bond issue to build the remaining phases at Burlingame.
Even more so now that an “issue committee” has been formed to oppose a ballot measure, even though an official question hasn’t been crafted yet. A longtime veteran of local politics, Mayor Mick Ireland predicted months ago that some sort of political action committee would take shape in order to fight the affordable housing effort.
But critics such as Marilyn Marks, the one who discovered the brochure error and who has been the most vocal, has said it’s not about preventing affordable housing, but moving forward with a solid Burlingame plan so no more “reckless” spending occurs.
“For me, it is not about politics ” it is about good governance and accountability and making certain that the money we spend on housing stretches as far as possible,” she said. “We cannot waste money like we did in phase one and expect to have a healthy housing program.”
Marks says city officials have politicized the Burlingame matter to divert attention from the core issues of fiscal responsibility and the government integrity, but elected leaders say Marks and her supporters have created the political battle through their allegations and rhetoric.
Whoever is responsible, however, this battle is already political and will almost certainly stretch into November and possibly to next May, when three Aspen City Council seats will go up for grabs.
Critics question whether city officials are capable of developing projects on the scale of Burlingame, which is planned for 236 units but could be as much as 330. Currently, 84 units are complete and seven single-family homes are planned on the property, located across from Buttermilk and roughly three miles from downtown Aspen.
Trying to face down their critics, city officials have been scrambling to reconcile the costs associated with Burlingame and publicly address numerous discrepancies that keep popping up from inquisitive citizens.
The tension between the two sides is palpable. Some with opposing viewpoints no longer speak to one another; some elected officials are afraid to use e-mail to communicate with the public, for fear that their words will be taken out of context and used against them.
Marks and another citizen, James Perry, recently requested that a special prosecutor be hired to investigate whether city officials knew in 2005 that their brochure was inaccurate and whether they intended to mislead voters. The City Council refused on July 14 to launch such a probe, and the critics are debating their next move.
Tim Semrau, a former City Councilman who was in office when the literature was distributed and who campaigned for Burlingame, said the brochure figure represented construction costs only and the dollars are close to being the same as they are today. What wasn’t included in the brochure were tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure costs and changes by the City Council over the years to make the project better.
“I don’t think that deserves a criminal investigation,” he said.
Semrau added that the city erred by incorrectly estimating the cost of the development’s phases two and three, which have yet to be built, as well as not responsibly conveying what the costs of the infrastructure were, including roads, stoplights, a park, transit service and a host of other items.
City officials have admitted the brochure was a mistake and have apologized. But they remain steadfast in their claims that, while costs at Burlingame drastically increased over time, every penny can be accounted for. The increases resulted from City Council decisions and changes, officials say, all of which were discussed publicly. City Manager Steve Barwick has created a portable Burlingame presentation that he’s taking to the media, citizen groups and anyone else who will listen, explaining the mistake and the current status of Burlingame.
Complicating this already thorny discussion is a recent spending spree by City Hall to buy land for future housing developments. Last year’s $31 million in land acquisitions has mostly exhausted the city’s housing fund, which is supported by a real estate transfer tax, or RETT.
In order to finish Burlingame, city officials have said they must go to voters in November for permission to borrow money against future RETT revenues. They haven’t crafted the ballot language yet, but the city’s critics already are marshaling their forces to defeat the question.
Some observers, including the embattled City Council members, say this shows that their critics’ real aim ” from the accusations of “cover-ups” and “mismanagement” to the newly created issues committee ” is to kill the remainder of the Burlingame project and, if possible, the housing program.
But, according to Semrau, there’s more to it than that.
He opposes a possible bond measure because he thinks that money should have been used to complete Burlingame instead of buying land at inflated prices. The council’s aggressive affordable housing plan should have been publicly debated more than it was, he added.
“Those were huge changes without any input,” Semrau said. Until the Council specifies an action plan on its overall affordable housing program and is held accountable for the Burlingame fiasco, he said, voters are unlikely to pass a bond.
Semrau predicts that anyone who is against a possible bond question will be viewed as anti-affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, it is turning into an ‘us’ versus ‘them,'” he said. “Anyone who votes against the common man, then they are against affordable housing … it’s going to get ugly.”
Former Mayor Helen Klanderud said it’s ugly already.
“It seems to have become personal and political,” she said, adding there has been a fair amount of name-calling from both sides. “Politics has been called a blood sport and this is truly a blood sport right now. I find it so troublesome.”
Some observers speculate that the Burlingame controversy will be used as a wedge issue in an attempt to unseat three council members who are up for re-election in May: Ireland, J.E. DeVilbiss and Jack Johnson.
As the debate rages on, officials said, those who stand to lose are local employees who are paying high rents, or are forced to commute because they can’t afford a place in Aspen.
“Don’t go after the [affordable housing] program,” Johnson said. “Go after me if you have a problem with me. I can defend myself. A program cannot.”
Klanderud agrees with the notion that a small minority of citizens may be attempting to gain a majority on the council. The group also might want to delay the bond issue until the spring, when voter turnout will be lower and Burlingame can be used as a campaign issue.
“If you want to replace three council members, do it on a general basis,” she said. “But to use Burlingame as a reason to replace three council members seems to me to be very narrow.”
The current council members weren’t in office when the Burlingame brochure or cost increases were decided, Klanderud added.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to some critics, who are looking to the current administration for answers.
“I have the impression that the critics of Burlingame don’t seem to be willing to accept any facts that are presented to them,” Klanderud said. “They don’t want to solve it, they want someone to blame.”
Those on the newly-formed committee are asking the City Council to delay the bond question and spend the next year thoroughly planning the next two phases at Burlingame, arguing that doing so could save millions of dollars.
City officials, in turn, are asking the critics to wait until the results of two independent audits on Burlingame are presented before making any more accusations. The results are expected to be presented during a July 29 open house in City Hall.
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