Elizabeth Milias: Are pet projects and punitive priorities principled public policy?
The Red Ant
One year ago, it was the height of election season in Aspen. Our current City Council took office in June and recently held its second retreat, finally setting goals for the term that will end in just over a year. According to Councilwoman Ann Mullins, the group is “still learning to work together.” The delay in specifying priorities has even frustrated City Manager Sara Ott, who admonished, “We are getting to the point where I need to know, because you’ve been in office for eight months now, what is it I need to get done for you by the end of the year?”
A revealing exercise at the retreat illustrated the individual personalities. Asked for a headline that reflects “their Aspen” in 2030, Mayor Torre, a cheerleader for Aspen’s quality of life, replied, “Aspen named happiest and healthiest in U.S.” Councilman Ward Hauenstein, true to his environmental objectives, envisioned, “Aspen celebrates car-free downtown; residents divided, guests love it.” Councilwoman Rachel Richards, godmother of Aspen’s subsidized housing program, added, “Ribbon cutting for new senior housing today.” Mullins idealistically remarked, “Aspen houses 70 percent of the workforce in housing program.” And Councilman Skippy Mesirow, the gift who keeps on giving, loquaciously pronounced, “Aspen, once known for Prada, now known for community, voted No. 1 in country for connection and kindness.”
At the end of the two-day confab, six directives emerged. Anticipate more development regulations such as increased fee-in-lieu, housing credits, employee generation and mitigation rates to benefit subsidized housing. These exactions are already prohibitively burdensome to development, and with further increases, will likely choke it to death, which is precisely the point.
More worrisome is the city’s plan to address delayed subsidized housing maintenance and capital reserves policies. Much of our housing stock is in physical decline, primarily due to the lack of maintenance by individual HOAs that have additionally neglected their responsibilities to collect sufficient dues. However, a public bail-out of these HOAs will set a damning precedent throughout the housing program. Why would any HOA collect another cent if the public fixes what the owners never prepared for nor cared about?
Next on the list is child care. The goal is to finance and expand local child care availability. Aspen’s shortage is not unique. Across America, working families grapple with the financial and logistical challenges of child care; it’s often why growing families move from more expensive urban areas to the suburbs. Surely this warrants a greater philosophical discussion. Is it the families’ responsibility or the community’s to provide child care? Memo to the local business community, mandates and fees are likely in your future because Aspen “the nanny city” says the responsibility is yours.
There will be new capital expenditures and regulations to address environmental issues, specifically an underfunded expansion of the aging stormwater system and projects focused on treating outfalls to the Roaring Fork River. Additionally, the city will be implementing new requirements for energy use tracking and restrictive regulations to improve efficiency in commercial and multi-family buildings, with penalties for non-compliance.
And with characteristic hand-holding, group-hugging and kumbaya-singing, this notoriously indecisive council plans to add even more layers to its ineffective public policy decision-making. Anything for greater public participation and community engagement, including comical pet projects such as a 100% voter participation goal.
Two tax collection initiatives from last summer’s retreat are already underway, including the pursuit of sales tax remittance by internet retailers amid the changing landscape of online shopping, and a further crackdown on short-term rentals that requires all owners to register as businesses and remit lodging taxes. And although not yet stated objectives, subsidized rent for local businesses along with a county-wide housing tax loiter in the shadows.
Notable, however, are the glaring omissions. Transportation didn’t make the cut, meaning the roundabout, given a “D” grade by the State of Colorado, and the Castle Creek Bridge, which is nearing the end of its lifespan, are not priorities this cycle. Relegated to consultants, Galena Plaza, the public space adjacent to the new Taj Mahal City Hall, has become a tragic missed opportunity that stands to impede connectivity between town, Rio Grande Park and the riverfront district. In the absence of prioritized financial oversight, construction delays, change orders and cost overruns already plague the Taj Mahal’s $50 million budget. Without clear council direction, preliminary proposals for new subsidized housing on the $29 million lumberyard parcel ignore what the community desperately needs: high-density workforce housing. And lacking sufficient prioritization and proper funding, the recycling center on Rio Grande Place is in jeopardy, a glaring environmental misstep.
Universal community concerns like traffic and transportation, reliable infrastructure, basic recycling and fiscal discipline should be top priorities, especially given an annual budget of $112 million. If the stated goals are indeed actionable for 2020, Aspen faces numerous new taxes and regulations in an already overly regulatory environment. Our glib council unequivocally derives great satisfaction from the power of its purse, enthusiastically creating new government programs and subsidies benefitting targeted segments of the populace, while implementing punitive regulations and bureaucratic hurdles at the supplemental expense of Aspen taxpayers, developers and business owners.
New taxes and regulations are not visionary. This priority list reads more like an addition to the penal code. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net.