Election season again
October 25, 2013
Next month, a majority of the Vail Town Council is up for election as seven candidates are vying for four seats. The new council will then elect the next mayor, so there could be a real change in Vail's governing body.
This will be followed in May with the election of three seats on the Vail Recreation District Board. Since there are only five seats, that election will also be for a majority of the board.
For the Town Council election, the Vail Homeowners Association has created a questionnaire to query the candidates about their position on a range of issues important to residents. All candidate responses are available online http://www.vailhomeowners.com.
Is change coming? There is an undercurrent of expectation that this election might be one of change, but the big unknown is whether that will really happen. Several factors seem to be contributing: a sense that community values are being ignored, public weariness with the adversarial nature of many of the town's recent decisions, political in-fighting between various town factions, the perceived lack of leadership for conciliatory compromise and power brokering about economic development issues.
The momentum for change is being propelled by a more optimistic view of the community's future prospects. The worst of the Great Recession seems to have ended, as the crowds of visitors have returned in record numbers. As of Oct. 1, the town reports a aggregate 10 percent rise across all funds year to date above the previous year. There are additional economic development opportunities under way that will further enhance the community's forward momentum — if there is a greater willingness to seek compromise rather than force results through confrontation.
Discussions set aside in recent years are beginning to resurface. There are concerns rising about overcrowding and excessive urbanization. There is recognition of the need to rebalance economic development within the preservation of environmental and lifestyle assets. More attention needs to be paid to regional factors, like expanded air service, and tackling big environmental issues including curing Gore Creek and Interstate 70 water and noise pollution.
Does the town's focus need readjusting? Vail was built on a foundation of protecting property values based on solid zoning created by property covenants, respect for the quality of life of its residents and a low density European village model with an equal mix of residential and business interests. Some are now asking whether the town has tilted too far in favor of business interests, especially since the town has gone into business for itself.
Crossing the line from a government body to a business proprietor puts the town in a conflict of interest when residential rights are at issue. The recent confrontation concerning the Vail Golf Course clubhouse renovation and the movement of the 18th green pitted the neighborhood residents against the town and resulted in a contentious lawsuit. With 83 percent of the property within the town of Vail now owned by individuals who are unable to vote in town elections because of residency requirements, there is a fear that in the absence of leadership for conciliatory compromise, more lawsuits will ensue as residents seek to protect their rights. There is also a fear some of the town's business forays might not pan out — the ill-fated conference center is a prime example — and the town's finances will be put in jeopardy.
Are fractures developing in Vail's governing infrastructure? Recently, there appears to have been an unprecedented spate of Town Council rejections of advisory decisions by its Planning & Environmental Commission and Design Review Board. Similarly, political in-fighting seems to have broken out among the town's economic development factions as they vie for tax dollars and domination of the Town Council. These are not healthy nor sustainable conditions, and many are looking to the elections as an opportunity to bring a fresh approach to the town's government.
The drama behind the curtain: Behind the scenes, out of view of the electorate, there appears to be a competition between two of the town's boards and the business interests aligned with them as candidates from those groups dominate the field in the current council election. At issue might be in control of the purse strings of critical accounts in the town's $54 million annual budget.
The two boards are the Commission on Special Events and the Vail Local Marketing District Advisory Council. The marketing council, whose members are not term limited, is funded by a lodging tax and in large measure represents local lodging and corporate/foundation interests. The Commission on Special Events, whose members are term limited, is funded from the general fund and aligns itself with retail merchants and restaurateurs. Between these two boards, cash largess totaling around $4 million is spent annually, with additional large sums taken from the town's reserve funds for extraordinary events like the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge race and the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championship competitions, among others.
Recently a rift between to the two boards that occurred a few years ago, when the marketing council sought to absorb the special events group into its operations. The marketing council wanted control of the Commission on Special Events' budget with the intent of redirecting spending to its "health and wellness" marketing initiative. The council had adopted its "health and wellness" initiative as the primary means to lead Vail through the recession. The fracture was papered up as each side sought and achieved a greater degree of common purpose. However, in the last two years, record setting gains in sales tax receipts demonstrated that the success of the commission's special event venue has overshadowed the productivity of the marketing council's health and wellness agenda.
How not to win friends: Furthermore, the marketing council, through the activities of some of its members, became associated with championing the redevelopment of the golf clubhouse into a commercial event center, requiring the reconfiguration of the 18th hole of the golf course. The repercussions of their insistence upon the inclusion of the commercial event center in the clubhouse created a political upheaval the likes of which has not been seen since the 2005 Solaris redevelopment battle. The clubhouse redevelopment is locked, for the time being, in litigation between the town and adjacent residential neighbors.
Is a course change needed? There are those who, after seven years of restrained progress, are beginning to question whether the "health and wellness strategy" needs a change in course. The patience to wait for the economic returns of a long-term strategy may have dampened its appeal, particularly when it may involve the capital investment of millions more dollars to sustain development of the local health care industry.
On the other hand, there is agreement that the economic future of Vail and Eagle County is vested in attracting and sustaining highly desired elements of that industry. At the same time, there are those who question whether Vail is becoming "over-eventized" and whether it is time to scale back and emphasize quality over quantity. More recently, questions are being raised about whether either group should be favored. Both are trying to commercialize Vail and "put more heads in beds" — they just come at it from different perspectives.
Their efforts, together with Vail Resorts' new summer activities, threaten to turn Vail into a giant amusement park, and all these things are changing the character of Vail. In the push to commercialize, quality-of-life issues seemed to have been pushed to the back burner.
Vail's shrinking reserves: Each budget season brings a lineup of event providers seeking public funds. In recent years, several new large-scale events have been funded from the town's reserves, which historically had been spent on capital projects rather than to cover special events. As a result, the town's reserves, which reached a high of $69 million in the Vail Renaissance boom years, have since been drawn down to $30 million. If the desire to make further withdrawals from the reserve succeeds, it could decline to $8 million, the minimum reserve amount recommended by the town's financial advisors.
Of long-term concern is the recent removal of a measure that restrained the percentage of operational spending in the town's annual budget. Without that constraint, operational costs as a percentage of the annual budget in recent years has increased while capital expenditures have declined. With no public support for tax increases, each entity may well have to be content with shrinking financial support from the town as other pressing priorities inevitably eclipse their day in the sun.
Transparency may be part of the answer: Improving understanding through communication is a reoccurring theme in the community. The Town Council has led the way with the live streaming of its deliberations over the Internet and on local public television. Extending this exposure to other deliberative boards and committees of the town could give an even better glimpse into the operational complexity of Vail's public political processes.
Windows are for looking in as well as out: Opening windows to view Vail's government at work could become a valuable tool to help educate the community's citizens and future leaders. It could open windows for non-residents so that they do not feel shut off from the process. After all is said, better government is a result of a citizenry that can take up their responsibility to become fully informed participants. Understanding through learning cannot happen if there are no windows through which to gain a better view.