“Define the moment or the moment defines you…” Roy McAvoy

Paul Menter

Part-time Pitkin County resident and famed movie actor Kevin Costner uttered that line back in 1996, in the movie “Tin Cup.” Costner played a talented but emotionally uneven golf pro with a penchant for blowing it at the last minute. Playing to win was his style, even if it meant shooting a 12 on the 18th hole of the US Open’s final round. Why? Because it was more important to make the green from 224 yards out to win in regulation than play for a tie.

Hollywood sometimes uses unrealistic circumstances to make a point, and Tin Cup was one such movie. The point being, recognizing and reacting to defining moments happens in everyone’s life. And sometimes, the moment is so unprecedented, that it calls for unprecedented action.

Our current unprecedented globally defining moment is the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. So far, our government leaders — federal state and local — have defined the moment by instructing us to close our hotels, restaurants, event venues, bars and other places of social gathering and stay at home. But are our leaders defining the moment or permitting the moment to define them?

These prudent and necessary steps have moved the world’s economy toward recession, conscripting millions of Americans into a “war” against COVID-19 by taking their jobs away and sending them home. Locally thousands of small businesses closed, and service and hospitality workers lost their jobs just as one of the most lucrative stretches of the season began.

Fair enough. The domestic COVID-19 death toll is mounting as the virus spreads. To date Americans have, with the exception of a small percentage of “Penny Hot Springs lunkheads,” dutifully followed government social distancing orders, because it is true that the novel virus, against which humans have no immunity, will otherwise overwhelm our healthcare system and kill many more people than necessary. But that is only the first half of the battle.

In terms of local government response to the pandemic, now that Pitkin County has issued a stay at home order, the first half of the local battle is set in stone. As to the second half, helping the displaced small business owners and hospitality and service workers who make all of those city and county tax collections possible, the question remains: Will the city of Aspen and Pitkin County define the moment, or let the moment define them?

As of my deadline, the city of Aspen was considering adding $200,000 to Pitkin County’s $500,000 COVID-19 relief fund. Given the unprecedented nature of this particular emergency, an Aspen-Pitkin County public fund of $700,000 is very small relative to the number of individuals impacted. It probably amounts to between $250 and $300 per displaced worker, conservatively assuming 20% of Pitkin County’s workforce is displaced. It’s a start but it’s just not enough.

So, what would define this moment? In addition to $700,000 in governmental funds to grant out, how about a meaningful investment during this difficult time, in the people who make the local economy possible?

Based on most recently available annual financial reports, less than two cents of every tax and fee dollar in Aspen and Pitkin County’s investment portfolios could create a $4 million, zero-interest loan relief fund available to displaced local workers and small businesses. Those investment portfolios, comprised mostly of high-quality bonds, have likely increased more than the 2% needed to create the fund since the recent stock market tumble began. Meaning such a fund would effectively cost Aspen and Pitkin County taxpayers nothing.

Given a total labor force of approximately 11,545 workers (based upon statistics provided in Pitkin County’s 2018 annual financial report), and assuming that one in five workers has been displaced by necessary governmental regulatory action to stem the spread of COVID-19, such a fund could, for example, provide approximately $2,400 to 2,308 displaced workers to help see them through the disaster that is normally one of their most lucrative earnings seasons.

Not a government hand out using dollars printed by the U.S. Treasury that add to the national debt. A zero-interest loan from a local government that genuinely cares about its workforce. A meaningful amount of money. A bridge to a better time with reasonable repayment terms that would begin in, say, 12 months. Not all local governments have the resources for such action, but Aspen and Pitkin County do.

Would it be hard to pull off such a fund? Perhaps not as hard as it might seem at first, using commercially available technology and tools to rapidly qualify applicants and deploy funds. Would it have risks? Yes. But most things worth doing are risky. Both organizations may perhaps trundle out their attorneys to declare such action illegal, because in government it never pays to define the moment by going for the green from the metaphorical equivalent of 224 yards, a la Roy McAvoy. (Remember, the movie came out in 1996 before 300-yard fairway woods were commonplace among golf pros).

But these are unprecedented times. And in the city’s case, it seems to me an organization willing to eat $600,000 in unrealized parking revenue (if you recall the notorious parking scandal of 2009-2014) when times were good should be willing to find a legal way to invest a couple million dollars in the community’s workforce when times are bad. The very economic future of many longtime local businesses and workers is at stake directly as a result of necessary governmental action. Dedicating a mere two cents of each invested public dollar in their community’s workforce would help them, and powerfully define this difficult moment.

Paul Menter can be reached at pmenter98388@gmail.com.