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ISSUE # 86: Will They Be RecalcitrANT?

"Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

-- Thomas Jefferson


We won. Narrowly, but in politics, it's not about the score. City of Aspen voters said no to the city's incredibly leading and biased question:

"Shall the City of Aspen complete the hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek, subject to local stream health monitoring and applicable governmental regulations, in order to replace coal-fired energy with renewable energy?"

The unofficial tally was 2044 (51.38%) against the project and 1934 (48.62%) for it. Of course, mayor Mick immediately began whining that the election was "bought" by project opponents, rudely insinuating that Aspen voters were unduly influenced by mailers and a large grassroots campaign. Shame on him. Aspen voters rejected the advisory question because they have lost trust in the city, its processes, its management of yet another capital project and its squirrelly misuse of public funds. And that's not to mention the projected environmental impacts of the project that caused such esteemed organizations as the Sierra Club, Western Rivers Institute, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the Hydropower Reform Coalition, Aspen Trout Guides and Aspen Flyfishing to publicly stand united in opposition. Frankly, it's amazing to me that so many Aspen voters actually voted for the hydro plant. But don't we just know it: when the "Mick machine" rolls, there are plenty of our friends and neighbors who are still scared to oppose the guy.

Sadly and frighteningly, this was only an "advisory" question (did you really think city council would give the people a binding vote?), and it is now up to council whether or not to abide by the will of the people and shut the project down. Councilman (and rumored mayoral candidate) Steve Skadron came out before the election and stated that he would still consider forging ahead regardless of the outcome of the vote. He told the Aspen Daily News that to abandon the project now because of short-term financial concerns about cost over-runs would be "irrational." Besides, he sees the project as "well-conceived" and "financially sustainable." Sounds like Skadron wants the full power of the Mick machine behind him come election season in May! Good grief.

We all know how Mick, whose legacy the hydro plant (if built) will represent, would vote. And get scared -- here's the third council vote to continue should it come to that: mental giant Derek Johnson wrote to the papers, "This project has had cost over-runs, and this sucks!" But he still advocated for the project. Scary. If it "sucks" so much to squander taxpayer money, why do you continually do it, Derek? (Memo: He is up for re-election in May.)

Thankfully, Torre (another rumored mayoral candidate) has said that he would respect the will of the voters, and it seems that Adam Frisch feels the same, but Frisch recently told The Red Ant that he viewed the advisory question not as an up/down vote on whether to continue building the hydro plant, rather the no vote signaled that the city needed a "cooling off" period before continuing to build. (I told him to go back and re-read the ballot question.) Puh-lease!

So, to summarize, the fight ain't over. Not even close. And likely won't be for some time. We should know in short order whether or not council decides to defy the will of the voters and press on. Beyond that, there is still a lawsuit against the city that challenges the city's water rights for a hydro plant on Castle Creek. And the federal approvals for a hydro plant are several years away.

At press time, both papers report that lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick has kicked the can down the road til at least January before any hydro plant decisions will be made. Whether or not this means that council will vote on what to do next is anyone's guess. In the meantime, apparently the city will be looking at other renewable energy options and their costs. The costs that Barwick refers to are not just limited to the costs of other options; utility rate hikes are likely coming down the pike. Think about it: the "enterprise fund" (read: slush fund) of the water department has been largely depleted by the cost-overruns to-date on the hydro plant. They're gonna have to refill those buckets of money with something to indulge their next goose chase! And should they continue building the hydro plant despite the outcome of the vote, they will certainly need more money to throw at the project to further goose the preposterous financials!  Barwick insists that no money will be spent on the hydro plant in the meantime.  Wait and see...

The Red Ant had some fun during election season and submitted the following letters to the editor: Fifty shades of green (Daily News 10/6/12), God's gift to green grandiosity (Daily News 10/23/12) and Hydro advocates mislead the voters (Aspen Times 10/26/12). Click to read them. I'm happy with the win for now. It feels good to hand Mick and his machine a loss in his last election as mayor, and on a misguided environmental issue no less.


Don't be surprised when you see the sales tax in Aspen increase to 9.4% come January 1. The regressive tax to raise about $1.75M annually for the schools with a 0.3% sales tax increase passed 53.16% to 46.84%. I didn't vote for it, but am not surprised at the result. The Aspen Education Foundation ran a solid campaign and Aspen voters rarely question tax hikes for our schools. We recently raised our property taxes for the schools (2010) and now our sales tax. I just wonder what awaits in 2014.

On a lighter note, these emotional "it's about the kids" campaigns always manage to bring out the buffoons among us. A pro-sales tax increase letter to the Aspen Times really made me laugh. A mother of two Aspen elementary students who lives (outside of Aspen) in Woody Creek had a fit when she learned that she couldn't vote to raise taxes in Aspen! Really. It is her belief that she should have a say about sales taxes somewhere she doesn't live just because her kids benefit from this largesse. "Every family that has kids in our school district should be allowed to vote toward any decision that concerns them and their families." In other words, anyone who benefits from Aspen's (forced) generosity should get to vote on raising other people's taxes so she and her family can get more. Can't make it up!


The library's request for a $5.4M bond ($10.2M payback) to expand the 1991-era facility and an additional $141K annual tax increase for the operational expenses of the expansion got shellacked. Creamed. 4986 (63.78%) against, 2831 (36.22%) for. We all love the library and it is a tremendous community asset. But all you have to do is go there and take a look around. The computer terminals are full, and as for the rest of the 32,000 square feet - you could shoot a canon through it. Reconfigure, remodel, reinvent. No problem. Especially with $5M endowment already in the bank. That should certainly cover it! I think the electorate (the same one that rarely votes down a property tax increase) recognized that an entity with that kind of cash on hand was overstepping its bounds by asking for significantly more. Furthermore, the reports that the library had already spent $500K on designs and planning made a lot of people sick. This was a good decision. We still have a world class library and it still has a bucket full of cash to make improvements should these actually be necessary.


What a joke. Nothing was determined. Nothing was resolved. In short, the net outcome of the two-day meeting about our beleaguered subsidized housing program was that the governing agencies (the Board of County Commissioners and city council) need to meet more. Yep. More meetings. And the housing authority wants more resources. Apparently the 13 employees on staff can't keep up with all of the authority's business. Pathetic.

But, post-summit, four "housing" tidbits did emerge:

  1. Homeless housing at the Marolt Ranch complex has run its course, thank goodness
  2. Rental housing is in high demand (told ya so)
  3. Council is in the process of DOUBLING the housing fees developers usually pay to provide "cash-in-lieu" for off-site housing for 60% of the employees generated by commercial projects (this could effectively shut down all development in Aspen and result in ZERO cash-in-lieu money). Look for this ordinance in December!*

*What is wrong with this picture? In this economy, why are we punishing developers and job creators, demanding that they build more and more subsidized housing? We have more housing than we have jobs for those who live there! Shouldn't job creators (who ostensibly employ our subsidized housing residents) be rewarded? Or perhaps just left alone?


As the developers of a potential lodge/condo project at the top of Aspen Street negotiate with the city, the true colors and lack of mental bandwidth of our council members shines bright. As much as they REALLY want a lodge up there, the boys just don't get it that a development project needs to make money. Instead, they fight the developers at every turn, restricting height limits yet demanding on-site above-ground subsidized housing, demanding more hotel rooms yet criticizing the need for money-making condominiums. You get the picture.

But my favorite? Genius councilman Derek Johnson, who recused himself from the negotiations because his subsidized housing is nearby, sent his wife to speak out against the project. Apparently, the Johnsons object to the potential loss of on-street parking and don't like it that the hotel's service entrance would be close to their property line. Can there really be subsidized housing NIMBYs? (I think you have your answer.) Can't make it up.


Yes, you read that right. RFTA has a $48.7M budget for 2013. And no it won't cover their costs. Costs are expected to exceed the budget by $1.2M next year. They do not plan to raise fares. Funds to cover the difference will come from "dipping into two pools of money" according to the RFTA CEO. One "pool" of other people's money comes from the 0.4% sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008. Additionally, RFTA has a $15M general fund balance.

RFTA will also continue with its $46M Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT") expansion, adding $680K in operating expenses to this year's tally. When complete in 2014, BRT will add another $2M to operating expenses. Never mind that RFTA ridership was down 4.1% in 2012 through September. That's 180K fewer riders. As Aspen's economy slowly recovers, the regional transportation authority reports that this hasn't produced an increase in bus ridership. Nope. Through July, daily vehicle trips into and out of Aspen are up 2%. Strange times indeed. Must be nice to have so much taxpayer money to monkey around with!

But lookee -- 22 compressed natural gas-powered buses are on the way, complete with a new fuel procurement policy! It reads, "RFTA expects the gas and oil industry to adhere to industry best practices when exploring for, extracting, and delivering the energy resources upon which RFTA relies and, to the best of its ability, RFTA will attempt to do business with only those that do." Here we go again. The policy continues, "RFTA will consider both price and the policies and practices that suppliers have in place." In other words, green at any cost.  Where does the nonsense end?


How quickly they capitulate when they see the error of their ways. It sure didn't take long. Council will soon be deciding whether or not to re-visit their decision to cap downtown development at 2 stories (28 feet). Seems without possibility of a 3rd story "penthouse" addition, city staff has recognized that there will be more than a few old buildings torn down rather than redeveloped. Funny what happens when the economic engine is taken away! Seems the new ordinance might allow 38-40' high buildings in the core, but council would still have the ultimate discretion to approve. That would certainly be scary, but at least there might be negotiation room.

City planners see the "vitality" and "lights on" plus side to such development, but council is adamant against it, favoring solely subsidized housing. It may get heated. Mayor Mick will not support the construction of ANY free market units downtown, and MIGHT look at height exceptions for a hotel - "I don't mean a time-share, a fractional, a condominium. I mean a hotel." Looking at staff's proposal, Torre echoed the mayor, "On my memo , I've got a bunch of different options. I think I've got a bunch of 'nos' and one 'hell no.'" Skadron noted that penthouse additions to historic buildings "creates exclusivity that is detrimental to small town character." And subsidized housing projects don't? No surprise that Derek Johnson still doesn't think he has enough information, never mind he recently voted to reduce the height limit to 28 feet. (Council obviously still doesn't understand that subsidized housing is not an economic driver of redevelopment, and without one, redevelopment simply won't happen.)


As expected, mayor Mick lost his cool during Monday night's council meeting. He simply cannot and will not acknowledge that the vote on the hydro plant didn't go his way. And please don't expect him to concede! In a typical tirade, the mayor proclaimed, "When you write letters to the editor and you call this council "despicable," and you call me "hate-filled," I will defend to the death your right to do so. You can call us, under the United States Constitution, any name you want short of a death threat, and you have that constitutional right, and I would fight to uphold that. I will not, of course, remain your friend. That's just the way it is." Puh-lease! He has simply lost it. (The campaign for the hydro plant AND his mind!)


6 months until we elect a new mayor!

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