In the race for the District 1 seat on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, Rob Ittner wants another shot at his old job, while incumbent Patti Clapper believes her work in the past four years merits what would be a fifth term in office.
Since 1999, either Clapper or Ittner have represented this district. Clapper was elected for three consecutive terms that ran from the late 1990s until January 2011, when she was term-limited out.
Ittner won the open seat in November 2010 and served for four years until Clapper was eligible to run again in 2014. She beat Ittner by a 56.3 to 43.7 margin in that election.
Four years, two new businesses later, and with the wisdom that comes from viewing on the sidelines, Ittner believes the time is right for him to reclaim the commissioner seat.
Ittner said that in the past four years, he has seen it become “more challenging for people to have a balance of life.” He cited the cost of living, including increasing health-care and child-care costs, as key reasons for the erosion of quality of life in Pitkin County.
Asked if he thought this was the main issue facing county residents, Ittner, a restaurant and cooking school owner, compared it to his line of work: “I wouldn’t say one [issue] is most important. It’s like asking what’s the best restaurant in the world when there are probably a top 50.”
Yet in a 45-minute interview this week he repeatedly returned to the subject of quality of life and said an increase in Pitkin County residents reverse commuting for employment is a troubling sign.
“We are now dramatically competing with Basalt, part of which is in Pitkin County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs for employees,” Ittner said.
Clapper agreed about the importance of county residents’ quality of life.
“I think we all came here based on certain values that we hold dear to our heart,” she said Wednesday.
Protecting healthy rivers and streams, air and public land are the values that should be embraced by a commissioner, she said.
“What makes Pitkin County such a special place is it really has a heart and soul in the community. That was proven at the Lake Christine Fire when everyone and everything rallied. All of the governments worked together,” Clapper said.
Ittner stressed that Pitkin County should be a “global leader” in environmentalism, especially given the recent dire news about climate change’s permanent effects.
Worker housing is an area where Pitkin County can continue to make inroads, both candidates said.
Clapper said that as a BOCC member, she was instrumental in the acquisition of the 77-acre Phillips Trailer Park land on Lower River Road in Snowmass, and cited that as another effort at preserving the quality of life for residents because the units were retained for below-market rents.
Recent employee housing partnerships with the Roaring Fork School District and Habitat for Humanity on a 27-unit project that is starting to rise behind Basalt High School was another effort Clapper cited under her commissioner tenure.
Ittner said he brings a business owner’s perspective to the housing crunch as well as “an analytical way of problem solving.”
An example of that during his prior tenure as a commissioner, he said, was his insistence to use money from a fund that was collecting “zero interest” on road projects in 2011. During that time prices were deflated, and the county was able to “piggyback” on some state bidding, he said.
On housing, Ittner suggested that the county “has to relook at its mitigation fees” and said Pitkin County lacked the funding mechanism that the city of Aspen has through a dedicated 0.5 percent Wheeler Opera House real estate transfer tax.
Ittner also said that due to the “deficit” in local housing, he’s not opposed to considering what county land might be viable for development.
“We need to really aggressively figure how we can get more density and units, and do it in a way that’s tasteful,” Ittner said. “I’m not opposed to partnering with the city on the BMC West site and get as many units as we can out there.”
Ittner, who holds the restaurant seat on the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board, said, “I don’t know a business in town that is not underemployed.”
Child care crunch
“You think the wait lists are long for housing? Try the wait lists for child care,” Clapper said, noting that she sits on the midvalley task force for child care. “It’s not just availability but affordability.”
She said in early discussions, “we’re just kind of opening that door” to considering “child care mitigation being built into the [land-use] code,” in a way similar to how employee housing is required of new development. Clapper said this method has worked in other communities studied by Pitkin County.
That there were only “16 slots in younger child care facilities available here” is concerning to Ittner, he said, and something he hears from employees and customers of his restaurant operations. “It’s only going to get more difficult,” he said.
The issuance this year of the Environmental Assessment for changes to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport does not mean the proposed expansion is a done deal, both the incumbent and challenger agreed.
Ittner said he joined the airport advisory board immediately after losing his commissioner bid in 2014. “A lot of that was getting prepared for the environmental assessment.”
He said some of the facilities are outdated and need to be redone.
“Do you rebuild for today or the next 20 or 30 years? I’m not saying there’s going to be an onslaught of additional people, but the building has to last that long.”
He also said the aging fleet of regional jets will need to be replaced. That has been one of the primary, though not the only, argument for why the runway needs to be expanded.
However, Ittner said he’s against 737s operating out of Sardy Field.
“The community should do everything it can to fight the 737s,” Ittner said. He said the future of aircraft beyond the CRJ (the regional jet commonly used here) operating at Sardy Field is unclear.
During his last tenure as an elected official, “I added a lot of value to the BOCC because a lot of the airport was a numbers game,” he said, adding he has a background in finance and accounting.
A long and close study of the Environmental Assessment is crucial, according to Clapper.
“The EA has a shelf life of three years, and the final decisions on the runway are a ways off,” Clapper said.
She said there are multiple varieties of 737 planes out there, but “I’m not sure any commercial 737s will be able to operate here safely [and] would fit an airline’s business profile.” For example, during a hot summer day a 737 could only operate with 30 percent capacity due to air density and altitude, she suggested.
“I would be the first in line to say, ‘No 737s,’ but we need to know what other options there are,” Clapper said.
As a business owner paying a triple net lease on downtown space, Ittner said he’s well aware of the impact of the Gallagher Amendment, which is part of the Colorado Constitution and requires a 45 percent to 55 percent residential-to-commercial taxing ratio.
“My portion of the property tax for my building is going to go up substantially because of Gallagher and the commercial portion of the mill levy hike of the RFTA mill levy increase,” he said. Voters will decide on ballot measure 7A, which requests a 2.65 mill levy on properties within the RFTA jurisdiction.
“I’m very much in favor of the RFTA mill levy increase, but a heavy portion will be paid by the commercial businesses,” he said.
“The RFTA tax is great in keeping in line the wages we pay people by making it affordable and efficient for employees to come into Aspen. As a business owner, I’m happy to pay it,” Ittner added.
He said the effect translates into not having to charge $35 for a hamburger at his restaurant, Rustique, which he founded in 2000 with chef Charles Dale. He also operates Cottage Aspen, which does catering and special events out of the historic Berko building on Hopkins Avenue, as well as the Cooking School of Aspen in the former Steak Pit site nearby.
Clapper, who has lived in Aspen for 39 years, said she works occasionally at Mountain Greenery in Basalt, which is a good “mental health” gig to balance her work as a commissioner.
“Being a county commissioner is a full-time job that requires time, energy and a passionate commitment,” Clapper said.
Commissioners have been closely watching developments with Gallagher and the “worst-case scenario of every district having a special mill levy,” she said.
“In 1999, my goal was to try and amend the Taxpayers Bill of Rights to allow for a real estate tax. The fact that TABOR is a taxpayer bill of rights that allows taxpayers to vote on new taxes but not real estate transfer taxes” is wrong, Clapper said.
“That money could be used for housing, public safety or child care, not just in Pitkin County but any jurisdiction in the state of Colorado,” she said, noting that Aspen and Snowmass Village had their RETTs in place before TABOR, which limits the amount a government can collect and spend.