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ISSUE # 99: Hardly tANTalizing News

"Here's to the crazy ones.The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."  

                       -- Apple, Inc.

The newness of their elected roles is beginning to wear off, as demonstrated by council's acceptance of the usual shenanigans in city hall.  Several of these capers are not council-directed, but by virtue of the fact that lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick simply steams ahead with his own agenda as though council does not exist, council is already heeding the direction of the bureaucrats rather than the other way around.  Council: Barwick and city staff work for you!!  Get it straight!!



Recall in Issue #98, council recently put forth its top 10 goals for the year.  I don't recall seeing anything there about "improvements to the Aspen Recreation Center (ARC)," nor did these goals prioritize the reconstruction of the Rubey Park bus station in town.  (According to the goals, Rubey Park's future is to be contemplated as part of a master plan for the malls and Wagner Park.)  But both of these projects are surging forward with serious momentum.  The city is asking the public whether they want parking for 18, 23 or 25 buses along Durant Street at a new and improved $4-$5 million bus depot, and they're already cobbling money together to make this happen in the very near term.  

In addition, the Aspen Rec Center (ARC), just 10 years old, is apparently on-deck for a major cash infusion of your money.  Needless to say, a major addition to the ARC is not listed as a council priority for the coming year, but "Chekov's Country Club" on Maroon Creek Road is coming soon! The city has hired a $52K consultant to determine what is lacking at the publicly-subsidized facility and to prepare a business plan that outlines for council what to pay for and how.  Public meetings were recently held; early items for the "wish list" include an outdoor pool, indoor tennis courts, an improved gym and an indoor field house.  Perhaps even an on-site hotel. The ARC has a $4 million annual budget; $2 million in revenue and a $2 million public subsidy.    

If council's designated priorities mean NOTHING to city staff, then why bother having them? Mayor Skadron, on whose authority is Barwick directing his staff to move forward on these non-prioritized projects?  



Mayor Mick was fond of international travel on the taxpayer's dime.  And, sadly, the tradition continues.  Aspen's Sister Cities program has a sketchy financial relationship with the city, but this fall's boondoggle has taken on monumental new proportions.  With a sister city relationship with the small town of Abetone (Italy) in the works, the city of Aspen sent over the welcome wagon from hell last week.  Sure, it made sense for Steve Skadron to go.  He is, after all, our mayor.  And my guess is that he dressed appropriately (no tank tops and ratty exercise attire) as the city's foremost ambassador.  But for lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick to go as well?  What?? He's hardly the face of Aspen we should be putting forth!  Besides, given that the "meat" of these sister city programs centers on exchange programs for local kids, why not someone from the schools?  

The taxpayer-funded entourage additionally included the city's PR flack and the parks director.  Surely these are employee perks (did they win the raffle at last year's Christmas party?) because there is no good reason for you and I to be buying $1200 airline tickets and paying per diem for these useless strap-hangers!  Thankfully, the ever-gracious Debbie Braun of ACRA joined the entourage, and NOT at taxpayer expense.  Her presence surely lent much-needed class and business acumen to the sojourn. Council, what were you thinking by approving such a boondoggle?!  Just because it's been done in the past doesn't make it ok.


The Red Ant was surprised by the large number of readers who responded positively to the idea of an underground parking garage beneath Wagner Park.  And if not buses additionally under the park, then certainly at Main Street and Galena (think: at the current parking garage by the courthouse) or out of town (perhaps at Buttermilk) so they don't stack up right in town in front of the mountain.  The sentiment was clear:  cars are a reality, and we need to find a solution to our dire parking problems.  A centrally-located in-town garage underneath a park is not a new concept.  Recall Union Square in San Francisco and Mellon Square in Pittsburgh.  This is a time-tested concept and one that should not be casually dismissed.

Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen echoed the growing sentiment to look beyond simply enlarging Rubey Park. His rational piece espouses the virtues of an urban transit hub at a reconfigured Library Plaza, which would provide a more centralized focus for transit along Main Street, substantially reduce in-town bus traffic in residential and high pedestrian traffic areas, dramatically cut carbon emissions, and offer a more welcoming experience than what is currently available at Rubey Park. Read it HERE.

But surprise, surprise.  Lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick came up with what he believes will SOLVE our parking woes.  Get ready -- it's a real doozy!  Barwick seems to think that a new and remodeled version of the Rio Grande parking lot (by the jail and courthouse) will become enticing to all -- despite it's inconvenient location -- with the addition of free (read: publicly subsidized) PEDI-CABS!  Yes, you read that right.  Pedi-cabs. Like bicycle rickshaws.  And maybe even golf carts. Lest this moron forget, Aspen enjoys WINTER conditions at least 7 months of the year!  I shudder at the thought of hopping into an open-air pedi-cab in a mid-winter blizzard in order to meet friends for cocktails across town at Brexi.  As it stands, the parking garage is projected to bring in $383K in 2014. Given $548K in expected expenses, you and I get to subsidize the difference. (This should tell you just what a loser the current public parking garage is!) As our highest paid municipal employee and CEO of the city, Barwick simply owes us a little bit more!  Ya think? Anything to advance his anti-car, enormous Rubey Park bus station expansion agenda, I suppose.


A reader of The Red Ant recently posited that perhaps local-owned businesses ought to get some special deal(s) from the city in order to initially start-up and later survive.  The Red Ant hates "false markets," which is what this would create. I just cannot condone a special "secondary/subsidized" commercial layer for some locals whose business plans can't otherwise make it in an admittedly tough environment.  In my book, it's just called survival of the fittest.  Besides, it sounds like a huge step in the nanny-state direction for a municipality that already subsidizes so much of some folks' everyday lives, from buses, to bike races, to rec centers, to culture (Wheeler Opera House -- taxpayer subsidized at approx $3million/year), to food tax refunds, to housing, to.... you name it.

There is a solution, just a different solution.  Aspen doesn't need to give tax breaks to businesses; Aspen needs to reduce its costly regulations by about 75% so that a business can sustain itself on a reasonable margin.  

Subsidized housing mitigation alone is the single largest culprit. The cost is astronomical for any new commercial development, layered onto the millions collected annually from sales and RETT taxes. There is a river of money flowing from those who create (the developers) to those who consume (the 1560 hour per year service worker).

And housing is just the beginning.  The development fees, impact fees, etc. are so grotesquely out of scale with what should be a reasonably-arrived-at cost of providing whatever services or mitigating for whatever impact is generated that it's ridiculous.

Aspen has become a wealth siphon:  largely inhabited by part-time residents and visitors who, in their personal calculation of value, continue to be willing to pay the ever-increasing price(s) in order to maintain their residences and participate in all that is Aspen. For now. That's not all Aspen is of course, but that's how its economy works. But where is the cost-benefit line? At some point Aspen will reach it. We have to be close to it, don't we? You can't even build a slope-side ski lodge in Aspen because of all the regulation.  How long can it last?


The $46.2 million bet has been placed.  With 13 new bus stations and 18 new buses converted to run on compressed natural gas, RFTA's enormous valley-wide overhaul is complete.   Admittedly, RFTA management states that there is no specific numeric goal for the project that was originally designed to increase ridership, however success will be determined by these increases.  Huh?  Recall that the $25 million federal grant didn't come with any strings attached such as metrics to justify the expense, therefore RFTA never bothered to come up with any.  And if RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship can be believed, he expects ridership to increase 25-30% over the next 2-3 years.  Go figure.  RFTA ridership was down 4.4% in 2012.

For the longest time, good help was hard to find.  This drove wages in Aspen upward based on the simple law of supply and demand. Not so, today.  The vastly improved bus system will quickly and comfortably bring more and more workers to Aspen from the hinterland -- so there will be no economic incentive for local employers to raise wages.  In fact, the plush new buses will make it even more appealing to even more down valley workers to make increasingly lengthy commutes.  More workers means more competition for jobs.  And competition for jobs does only one thing: it keeps wages low.  

This is certainly not good for the Aspen worker who lives in town, subsidized or otherwise. The cost of living in Aspen is incredibly high, but for many, the "lifestyle" justifies the trade-off.  It's a similar decision matrix for those who commute.  And when the commute itself becomes easy, warm and comfy (therefore less and less of a negative in the equation), more and more workers will be willing to do it.  There are no indicators that the cost of living in Aspen is ever going to decline, yet alone flatten out.  And as we continue to build and build more and more in-town subsidized housing inventory, there will be more and more local people working at low wages who can afford less and less. The new RFTA expansion has just effectively fattened the wallets of those who live in more affordable parts of the valley who are willing to ride our cushy subsidized buses to and fro.  And for those who live subsidized in town, there will be lower chances of increasing wages, and less and less they can afford to buy or do. This is going to get interesting.  


According to the response from a recent open records request of the city, The Red Ant has learned that since 2007, city hall has spent at least $830,000 on payments to two Denver and Boulder-based law firms assisting with its work on the hydro plant water rights lawsuit and FERC matters related to federal permits for the Castle Creek Energy Center (hydro plant).  The bills continue to roll in because the city has not stopped its work toward completion of the hydro plant despite the damning November 2012 vote. This incredible sum of taxpayer money does not include city staff time. How much green energy could have been purchased with THAT tidy (and counting) sum???


To-date, the city of Aspen has collected $44,826 from the sale of paper bags at local grocery stores.  At 20 cents per, that's 224,130 paper bags!  Recall that the city is embroiled in a lawsuit over this controversial tax (which the city argues is a fee), the funding for which comes right out of the city's general fund.  So confident is the city that they will prevail, Mayor Skadron has already told his counterparts in Telluride to ignore Aspen's lawsuit and press on with similar tax in their town right away!  Aspen's newest tax revenue stream will fund "education efforts," but sadly not the kind so desperately needed by our schools.


Remember in 2011 when vocal locals were up in arms at the thought of losing Little Annie's restaurant to a new development?  And remember how the city inserted itself into the brou-haha, eventually "swapping" a deed-restricted retention of Little Annie's at its current Hyman Avenue location (by designating it "historic") in exchange for granting approval to the new owner to build a 6900 sf penthouse in the adjoining building with substantial subsidized housing mitigation reductions?  Well, brou-haha be damned.  Seems now that the owner of Little Annie's, the restaurant itself, is soon to close the beloved local institution for good.  His choice. The "historic" structure will be remodeled as a restaurant and brought up to code as planned, but Little Annie's? Tootles. Sayonara. Ciao bella. In its place?  Who knows.  But the city's meddling mandates that the next tenant now operate a "local serving," therefore "affordable," establishment in the space, meaning they can only charge rates on par with those at similar deed-restricted eateries such as Justice Snow's at the city-owned Wheeler Opera House. (Notably, there's another similarly saddled 1800sf deed-restricted "local serving" restaurant space empty and available around the corner - in the basement space below where Cooper Street Pier / Bad Billy's once stood.  To-date: no takers.  Nobody likes to have their income forcibly capped by the city.)


Aspen recently lost one of its own: former county commissioner and 3-term mayor Helen Klanderud.  Known as much, if not more, for her philanthropy and dedication to all aspects of our community, as her local political involvement, Helen's presence was felt by all, and she will be fondly remembered. Aspen Daily News columnist Paul Menter warmly, personally and graciously captured "Helen." Read it HERE.

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