Aspen City Council heads into budget talks this week with an agreed upon two-year plan that prioritizes employee housing above all else.
Last week, city of Aspen project manager Raquel Flinker led the council through a strategic plan confirmation, summarizing and verifying the council’s declared goals from its biannual retreat this summer. Flinker told the council that the goals from the retreat have also been vetted and refined by the city’s department heads.
“These groups met throughout the month of September and collaboratively worked on drafting definitions for the focus areas and goals, based on retreat discussions, what they have been hearing from council, and their expertise,” Flinker said.
Upon final approval of the goals by council, staff will begin mapping out ways to achieve each one. Another work session will be scheduled to approve those work plans.
Of council’s 13 top priorities, five directly impact affordable housing issues. The council agreed that there needs to be an assessment of how the community development department assigns housing mitigation to developers, including reevaluating the employee generation calculation, and the housing certificate program.
Another priority is to explore more ways to get financing for new affordable housing opportunities. Councilmember Rachel Richards said she’d like to see a new tax created in partnership with the county that brings in funding specifically for housing.
“I would honestly say if we don’t pick it up now going into 2020 it won’t happen and that opportunity will be lost,” Richards said.
City Manager Sara Ott also wants to revive a financial advisory board of experts that can make recommendations on the long-term economic stability of affordable housing.
“It comes into, how much land banking versus current construction, is there a sweet number to look at and how do you know when in the market its best to take certain activities versus others?” Ott said.
Ott will also be spearheading a look at the affordable housing program’s deferred maintenance issues. Multiple homeowners associations within the city’s subsidized housing stock have upcoming capital projects beyond what their reserves can handle.
Trish Aragon told council that the city's water management system is in dire need of attention. Whereas the city’s aging stormwater infrastructure has been identified as at risk, there is not funding for upgrades.
“We are experiencing an emergency situation once a year,” Aragon said. “In addition, attention to water quality treatment projects is vastly reduced, so [there is] less treatment of pollution coming into the river from the community, and failing infrastructure.”
Other council priorities include creating a community engagement strategy, under the supervision of the city’s new communication director, Tracy Trulove, and identifying ways to attract and retain locally serving businesses.
The council developed its first draft of priorities during a facilitator-led retreat about a month after being sworn in with three new members this summer. Torre, who was elected mayor following Steve Skadron’s term-limited departure, said he felt the process of creating the goals list could use refinement.
“This has been a good process through our first retreat, but I think moving forward and for next year, I think we could do better with strategic planning when it comes to setting priorities,” said Torre.
He said there was a disconnect between the retreat and the updates brought to council this week, and between priority setting and budget spending. He also acknowledged that the council sets priorities without having a full understanding of how staff is able to spend their time. He asked for another retreat and goal setting exercise to be set up for next year.
Ott agreed. At the time of the retreat she was serving in an interim role. She said in the future, the two-year strategic planning process would begin sooner than it was able to this year.
“I look forward to having a different process in the future as well. I think we were trying to balance the interim, the new council, and the realities of this 18-month time period,” Ott said. “I’m hopeful we can have a more robust conversation that starts much earlier and is much more refined.”