Aspen government to tighten budget belt in response to COVID-19 pandemic

A sign hangs in the window of the Wheeler Opera House announcing closure through March 31 due to coronavirus on Friday.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

City of Aspen officials are bracing for a steep decline of revenue as the resort community adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sales tax is very elastic; you feel it very quickly when it’s not coming through so we are updating those revenue forecasts,” City Manager Sara Ott told City Council during its Tuesday meeting. “We are evaluating capital and operational expenses going forward this year.”

She said she is working with department heads to assess revenue projections, and deliberate and balance the needs of the community before coming back to council with recommendations.

“There are some things that we’re going to have to talk about sooner rather than later,” Ott said of the city’s $112.9 million budget. “Even though we are in these elastic times and making these changes, there are some things that don’t change for the city.

“We have to pay on our debt obligations and we have to continue projects that we have acquired debt for,” she continued, adding that payroll and supplies are necessities. “I’m concerned about supply chain interruption with some of our capital projects as this becomes more unpredictable globally.”

The Pitkin County Public Health Department‘s order this week that all non-essential businesses close and last week’s order that restaurants and bars be shuttered except for delivery and takeout to slow the spread of the virus has taken what would be a booming resort during spring break to a ghost town.

Ott told council it will be millions of dollars that will be lost among the city’s 863 businesses and the city’s revenue sources.

An informational packet is being distributed to those businesses, guiding them on how to navigate for help and relief and access to resources.

“This gets things rolling while we’re waiting for state and federal packages,” Ott said. “We want to let folks know what they can do immediately.”

Council members have agreed to act as liaisons to different sectors of the business community to keep the lines of communication open.

“It’s important to get accurate information on the ground to inform our strategies in the weeks and months to come to deal with the situation we are facing,” Ott said.

The city has paused non-essential hirings and operational expenses.

Ott also told council that staff is working on conducting virtual town meetings with various sectors of the business community for question-and-answer sessions and to connect with one another.

Parking will remain free through the end of May to encourage social distancing and to allow those with COVID-19 symptoms, or those who were exposed to someone who is sick, to avoid public transportation.

Plus, there’s no reason for high-season pricing with hardly anyone in town, Ott said.

The city also is making child care available for essential employees like those in the health care and food service industries and emergency workers.

That’s being carried out by the city’s Kids First program, in partnership with Pitkin County Human Services, Eagle County Human Services and Aspen Valley Hospital.

To know whether they qualify, people can call Kids First at 970-920-5363 or [email protected].

Ott said the city’s role right now is to support the county’s incident management team with personnel, as well as preserve health and safety for the public and maintain essential services to residents.

“Our staff is a humongous asset to our organization and community in making sure the water still runs, the lights come on, there’s a friendly officer when you need help,” she said. “Those are the sorts of things we’re not going to step back on.”

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via:: The Aspen Times