Roger Marolt: Roger This |

Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

It has become very obvious that the economic stimulus package is not working. Despite what we taxpayers want to believe, the massive amounts of money that our government is infusing into the economy are far too small to make a difference. The unemployment rate is high, and rising. Retailers are reporting dismal numbers. Everybody seems to be stretching their humble pie recipes. As it is, the only winners in the spending spree are Aspen restaurateurs.

Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you knew. Of course I am not talking about President Obama’s plan to rescue our country. It is far too early to tell about that, even if it is late enough to have serious doubts. Rather, I’m talking about the City of Aspen’s plan to resurrect our local economy, which is already well under way.

As recently reported in The Aspen Times by Carolyn Sackariason, our city government has been dispersing bailout money throughout town under its BURP (Be the Ultimate Restaurant Patron) plan for some time now. Under BURP, more than a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money was funneled into the local economy during the past two years, demonstrating that our government spotted the current crisis long before it was on most people’s radar. Being thus prescient, they took the bold action of distributing “purchase cards” to about 85 percent of its 314 person workforce and told them to spend.

The staff did their best to make the plan work. Credit them with taking the initiative to expend more than five times the amount that was budgeted since the beginning of 2007 for governmental meals and entertainment. On average during the past two years, each and every one of the 270 government employees with a “purchase card” spent nearly $1,000 of taxpayer cash on dining out. The list of amounts spent and the diversity of restaurants they patronized are impressive to say the least.

There were two meals by the information technology (IT) department at Montagna at The Little Nell that totaled nearly $900 a piece. (Can there be any argument as to where the smartest people at the city work?) The streets department racked up a tab of $1,325 at Russets in Carbondale, so as to spread the wealth to neighboring communities who did not have the foresight to institute their own stimulus plans. The parks department dropped over $1,000 in one shot, so to speak, at the Red Mountain Grill located on, you guessed it, the golf course. You could even say that some employees took the money and ran with it. More than $1,500 was doled out for “going away” parties. And, who says spending all of this money can’t be fun? The police department ponied up $3,234 for a Christmas party at Bumps.

I don’t mean to leave any of the participants off the list, but it is far too extensive to print in total here. It should suffice to say there are a lot of people working very hard to circulate your tax dollars. Clearly, in such a massive and widespread effort, many, many city workers deserve credit. With typical governmental humility though, Wheeler Opera House Director Gram Slaton may have summed it up best when he refused to acknowledge that this was any particularly noteworthy accomplishment by the city. When asked about his role in BURP, he modestly stated, “… it’s standard business practice.” Possibly with his tongue in his cheek (in between bites, of course) and maybe taking the opportunity for a friendly jab at the IT department or reassuring us that there is a solid plan in place so that they are not all targeting the same places, he went on to say, “We try to be smart about how we spend money over here. You won’t find me buying diner at Montagna.” Records back him up. He spent $341 for a meal at chichi Lu Lu Wilson, instead.

All this praise, however, is not to imply that this beneficial spending spree does not come without a price. As has been pointed out very poignantly, our city is facing serious challenges in cutting its budget in the face of declining tax revenues anticipated for the coming year, at least. We will have to cut out many city services and amenities in order to keep BURP alive in the future.

As I intimated at the beginning of this piece, as prodigious as it has been in buying meals locally, BURP may not be enough to jump-start our economy. The fact is that we need even more spending by city employees. Given that the “purchase cards” have worked so well in loosening up spending at local restaurants, it is not a stretch to believe that they could work equally well for other kinds of spending that would benefit a broader range of businesses in town.

There is no logical reason that city employees should be limited to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars only on meals other than because “this is the way it has always been done.” We need to expand the program by raising the bars on what employees are expected to spend and encouraging them to consume other products, too. Who could argue that there is no business benefit in allowing city workers to look nicer on the job? How about expanding the “purchase card” program to include jewelry, haircuts, tattoos, and clothes from local stores? How about new furniture and art to enhance the effect of business entertainment at their homes? Anybody need a new stereo or flat screen television set to keep up on critical world events that could affect their job performance?

But, I don’t want to steal anybody’s thunder here. There is a rumor being floated that the city will unveil a new spending program within days that promises to add measures such as these. It’s called FART (Furthering Aspen’s Recovery Today). And I promise, it is going to blow you away!

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