Meredith C. Carroll: Aspen government masters art of spending other people’s money
May 15, 2018
Since the project began in earnest last month, complaints about the city of Aspen's nearly $5 million, four-month-long Castle Creek Bridge makeover have been like the breadsticks at Olive Garden: endless. The glaring difference, though, between the city and a fast-casual chain restaurant is that the latter will endeavor to do better if you criticize poor service or a subpar product for which you've paid, while the former doubles-down instead.
Gripes about the Castle Creek Bridge — the inane traffic back-ups, piss-poor communication and eye-popping fiscal waste — didn't ruffle the city's feathers, apparently. That became clear when less than a month after construction began, the city unveiled its new logo, which nobody either clamored for or thought necessary. On May 3 it was announced that after a two-year process and $51,000, the city's old aspen leaf logo had been replaced by a new aspen leaf logo (now with more venation!).
"Having a consistent identity through our logo and branding helps people recognize the value they're receiving for their tax dollars," Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said.
When seeing exactly what was produced and for how much, people, indeed, were reminded of just how little value the city places on their tax dollars. In a seemingly apt move, the rebranding was announced on a Friday afternoon, a day and time otherwise known as the public-relations graveyard.
The new veiny aspen leaf logo, which even its designer described as "very typical," though, was not to be outdone. Three days after it sprouted, so too did news of the $400,000 the city plans to shell out this year to "prepare" for a $2 million "traffic experiment." The three-month-long "mobility lab," slated for summer 2019, will essentially pay people to not drive into town. Because everyone thinks that'll be what cures what ails Aspen.
Aspen Mayor and math wizard Steve Skadron pointed out that $2 million is cheaper than the $200 million it would cost for an actual traffic solution. Added city Councilman Adam Frisch: "I'm happy to keep chipping away at it. … A couple hundred grand … a couple hundred grand … a couple hundred grand," he said.
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Despite persistent outrage over how much money it squanders and how little it listens, the city filed a motion late last week once again trying to wriggle out of letting taxpayers decide the fate of a new $22 million City Hall, even though more than one court and pretty much everyone not employed by the city has clearly stated their outrage at this decision being made in a vacuum.
But while the city is flush with cash for eighth-grade-level art projects and improving a bike-friendly sidewalk that sits adjacent to an even friendlier bike-friendly sidewalk, at what point does it add up the $4.6 million here, $51,000 there, $400,000 and $2 million elsewhere and then tack on another $22 million and say, "Gee, maybe it'd be prudent to check with the people who gave us this money before spending so much of it?"
To be fair, the city has historically proven itself to be OK-ish stewards of public money. That's why it's probably time to let the city open its own passbook savings account to set aside funds for the projects only it wants. Suggestions on ways for the city to save could include opening up a stand on Lemonade Day, selling gently used items on Roaring Fork Swap, or perhaps imposing a vacancy tax on fat-cat developers who make their money off the zillion-dollar third-floor downtown penthouses and then let the street-level commercial spaces below sit empty until which time another Louis Vuitton or Prada opts to add Aspen to its brag list of overpriced locations.
The fact is, though, it's unnecessary for the city to shell out thousands on rebranding or millions to pay people to get into Aspen. No matter if it's littered with rotten aspen leaves or traffic-packed roads, Aspen will remain a world-class destination. A fancier bridge, logo or City Hall isn't essential, although what's desperately needed is for the reset button to be pressed on the process by which the city decides why, when and how it exploits public funds.
In the meantime, the practice of throwing taxpayer dollars at solutions that never stick has to stop, and since the city cannot seem to stop hemorrhaging other people's money, it just needs to be done for them.
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.