The mistake was bad, the reaction was even worse |

The mistake was bad, the reaction was even worse

The Aspen Times Editorial

The mistake was bad, the reaction was even worse

There is a somewhat disheartening lack of alarm emanating from the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority these days – disheartening, because it has become apparent that there seems to be some serious flaws in the way the housing office staff goes about its business.

Last fall, we watched in dismay as one housing project, Snyder Park, was stalled – if not killed entirely – after it was discovered that the housing office’s development cost estimates were off by about $1 million. At the time, Housing Director Dave Tolen blamed the problem on rising construction costs. It turned out that his explanation was only partly correct – he had been basing his cost projections on information that was at least two years old, information that was gleaned from previously built projects at Juan Street and East Hopkins Avenue.

City officials were not happy at the news, but took it in stride and put the Snyder project on hold in hopes until new bids yield lower construction costs, or the project is redesigned.

Fast-forward to this week, when an Aspen Times investigative report revealed that what we can call the “Snyder syndrome” was about to afflict another project – the controversial Burlingame Village development. The cost estimates for Burlingame had indicated government subsidies far below the levels considered realistic by area construction experts. Housing office staffers steadfastly rejected any suggestions that there might be something a little wrong in their figures.

But then, just three days after this newspaper reported that the housing office estimates were considered absurdly low by experienced private-sector developers, the housing office staff came up with yet another set of figures. The difference between the old numbers and the new is breathtaking. The original calculations – so stoutly defended – estimated that the project would cost roughly $44 million and, in the end, require a government subsidy of just $1.5 million. The new numbers say the project will cost about $50 million and require a subsidy of $6.75 million.

That’s quite a difference. More than $5 million of taxpayers’ money.

Under the circumstances, one might expect some sort of reaction from the housing staffers and the Housing Board. Embarrassment might be appropriate. Relief, perhaps, at the very least, that they had discovered the vastly expensive error of their ways before the Burlingame project had gone the way of Snyder Park.

Instead, however, the housing office staffers have continued to maintain there is nothing wrong in the way they do their business, and it appears that the Housing Board backs them up. According to comments made to a reporter, members of the housing staff and the Housing Board see nothing unusual in having the cost estimates for two different projects suddenly blow up in their faces. Worse, they see no need for concern.

This does not exactly engender a feeling of confidence.

Affordable housing is of vital importance to this community. It is difficult to build. It is very expensive. It must be handled efficiently, intelligently and professionally. The housing staffers’ mistakes were bad enough; their refusal to admit those mistakes was worse; but their “so what?” reaction when they were finally forced to acknowledge their errors is entirely unacceptable. The effort to create housing cannot be crippled by incompetence and bureaucratic stonewalling.

It is up to the Housing Board and, ultimately, to the City Council to provide oversight and direction to the housing office. In this case, that obviously has not been done, perhaps merely because the housing staff had been doing a good job and our elected and appointed officials got a little too complacent. It is to be hoped that this little wake-up call is sufficient.

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