Elizabeth Milias: Aspen City Council’s offseason power trip

While town is empty during the annual spring sojourns, our local electeds, left unchaperoned, have embarked on a vacation of sorts of their own. It’s called a power trip. There is no other way to describe their self-serving and arrogant behavior, reflected in recent quickly enacted policies that serve few good purposes other than to inflate their own egos and assert their lordship over the local minions.

  • The six-month moratorium on residential development permits was quickly extended by at least two months while draconian new regulations are finalized. These promise to include increased fees and mitigation to fund an upwardly-moving-but-unstated number of new subsidized housing units, as well as increased allowable densities on vacant properties where developers will be encouraged to build high-density, multi-family housing in all zone districts.
  • While council decides who is allowed to rent out their private property on a short-term basis, the flawed assertion that short-term rentals are to blame for Aspen’s housing crisis, not the mismanaged housing program itself, is repeated time and again. The 2008 Aspen Area Community Plan cites in the eight years “from 2000 to 2008, the ratio of local workers living in free market housing dropped from 22% to 13%.” Conservatively extrapolating 14 years later, it has likely decreased another 9%, from 13% to 4%. Is this really the biggest crisis in our community? A higher priority than anything else?
  • Distracted by their work transforming Aspen into a socialist worker’s paradise with a near-term goal of adding 500 subsidized housing units to our existing inventory, our electeds have neglected the very real impacts of expiring deed restrictions on numerous properties in our portfolio. Notably, the rental portion of Centennial representing home to 450 local workers was sold in 2020 to a private equity firm that also recently snapped up an additional 22 units in town. These units house local workers today, but the deed restrictions are not permanent, and when they expire, the properties will revert to the free market. Perhaps we should protect what we have before building more?
  • Remember Taster’s Pizza, by the skate park along Rio Grande Place? It was driven out amid construction of the Taj Mahal City Hall and not replaced. An affordable restaurant there was clearly not a priority. With the stroke of a pen and zero formal review process, council recently approved a food truck in front of that location, usurping a couple parking spaces. This strangely comes on the heels of an early May “clean-up” that saw the demise of the Creperie’s street activation “Chalet” and Kemosabe’s barn, among others, and notably, the cancellation of the W Hotel’s food truck in 2020. “Messy vitality” for me, but not for thee.
  • On the outskirts of town, the roundabout remains torn up. The only thing council is doing about traffic on Highway 82 other than ignoring it is planning to make it worse with a new traffic light at the Lumberyard.
  • The Lumberyard’s final unit count has been set at 277, with an estimated cost of $400 million. This $1.44 million-per-unit cost is likely the most expensive publicly subsidized housing project in America on a per square footage basis. With the city as developer, the actual costs are likely to be 20% higher. There has yet to be any discussion about how this half-billion dollar project will be funded and by whom, but a consultant just revealed that the target market is half for those already in subsidized housing who want to trade up, and the other half is for workers who currently live down valley who want to live closer to town.

Aspen has lost its way. Our biggest crisis is one of leadership. These offseason decisions in no way even begin to address the truly critical issues facing the community, many the result of unforced errors: a labor shortage due to little seasonal worker housing, horrendous traffic, no parking, the loss of child care, and class warfare.

Not to be confused in any way with a merit-based pay increase, it’s time to dramatically change the compensation structure for our elected city officials. Today, our one-named tennis-teaching mayor makes just shy of $40,000 a year in his elected role. The others, an artist, a computer guy, a City Market employee and Skippy, make just over $32,000. The hours are arguably long, therefore more enlightened members of the community are loath to take on these roles given the paltry pay.

As we prepare for the March 2023 municipal elections and strive to entice qualified candidates to run for office and bring some new blood, experience and common sense to a body that desperately needs it, it’s time to raise the pay scale. We’ll be electing a mayor and two councilmembers. In government, you get what you pay for, and it’s abundantly clear that despite a $211 million annual budget, the city of Aspen is an absolute cheapskate when it comes to compensating its elected officials. Look what we’ve got. We can certainly afford to double these salaries. Let’s move beyond the discount aisle and attract some good candidates.

Aspen deserves better.

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