“Throwing up in the hallway is memorable…”
Council members from both Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte got together on Wednesday, February 8 to discuss some hot-button issues impacting the two communities. The councilmen directed their town managers to investigate the potential of combining the two law enforcement agencies into one department; they gathered a lot of information about the airline program and the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority; and they expressed some concerns about the local Tourism Association and Chamber of Commerce.
“This meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for good communication between the two towns,” said Mt. Crested Butte Mayor William Buck. “Hopefully this will help us move some things forward in an efficient manner.”
“We hope this leads to further productive discussions,” added Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep.
The meeting started with a discussion of possibly creating a “Public Safety District” to combine the police and marshal’s departments.
Mt. Crested Butte Town Manager Joe Fitzpatrick said, “The idea has been batted around for a while and there are probably some efficiencies to be gained. As the town governments continue to deal with shrinking budgets, we are looking for ways to provide better service without adding to expenses.”
Fitzpatrick said both towns spend about $700,000 each, or approximately 25 percent of their general fund expenditures, on their police departments. He pointed out that both towns employ chiefs; Crested Butte has seven officers and one administrative assistant, while Mt. Crested Butte has six officers and an administrative assistant. Each department has an office and similar equipment to maintain. The two departments have a mutual aid agreement to assist each other when necessary.
“The question is, could combining the two agencies save the citizens money while maintaining safety?” Fitzpatrick said.
He said a combined force could be achieved a number of ways: A new district could be created such as the Fire Protection District; one town could take the lead and an Intergovernmental Agreement signed; a new entity like the Mountain Express with a separate board of directors could be formed.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions about this but there are examples where communities have successfully partnered,” said Fitzpatrick. “Issues that would have to be addressed are the philosophical differences of the two departments, the actual savings, the location of the office, the source of capital and staff ramifications, to touch on a few. We don’t pretend to have the answers to any of these questions.”
“We have talked informally about this for three years,” said Crested Butte Town Manager Susan Parker. “We would need to do some fact-finding before pursuing it more.”
“If we do move forward, I would ask that the number one priority that is considered is the safety of the citizens,” said Crested Butte Chief Marshal Tom Martin. “The second issue would be the impact on personnel and then the money. Don’t get too focused on just the money. Levels of service are very important. I’d hate to see that decline. I’m pretty comfortable with our organization.”
“The idea is to keep or improve the level of service,” said Buck. “The question is, do we want to move forward to gather more information?”
Responding to a question from Crested Butte Councilman Jim Schmidt, Fitzpatrick said if the forces combined, the Mt. Crested Butte contract with the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Department would likely be revisited. Currently Mt. Crested Butte covers the valley north of Round Mountain and receives $130,000 a year.
“Safety is the key,” said Mt. Crested Butte Councilman Danny D’Aquila. “No one wants to compromise the level of service. Is there enough savings involved to justify us continuing to explore the idea?”
“We won’t know until we really dig into it,” responded Fitzpatrick.
“The officers in both departments have a good relationship and it seemed natural to explore this concept,” said Parker.
“I do have some concerns, given the differences in philosophies between the two departments,” noted Schmidt.
“The officers all took the same oath,” said Parker. “It is probably worth exploring further.”
“It may be wise to look at it now so that in ten years from now we are prepared,” said Crested Butte Councilman Glenn Michel.
Fitzpatrick and Parker were directed to take some time to further investigate the pros and cons of a combined law enforcement agency in the north end of the valley.
Regional Transportation Authority chairman Chris Morgan gave the group a history of the organization and outlined the challenges the area is facing with the airline situation. The talk was meant to provide facts for the council representatives and give them some background to respond to questions from their constituents.
The group was open to the idea of going to the voters and asking for an increase in the RTA tax rate. One idea is to ask Gunnison voters to pay the same as the rest of the county. That would increase the rate in the city of Gunnison from .35 percent to .6 percent and would raise about $250,000. The other idea is to ask all county voters to raise the tax to 1 percent, raising about an additional $1 million.
“We have some very, very serious challenges,” said Morgan. “If we took every dollar of our budget and spent it on airlines, we could maybe pay for 60 percent of the American Airlines guarantee. We want to develop a five-year strategic plan but we understand a lot of things are in flux. It is difficult to predict the future of airlines.”
Morgan and Fitzpatrick informed the group that deplanements, the number of people getting off a plane at the Gunnison airport, has drastically declined. In 1986, there were 31,518 deplanements. The figure peaked in 1993, when 68,202 people got off the planes at the Gunnison Airport. In 2011 the figure was 32,432.
“This is a serious issue,” said Morgan. “In my opinion, we need to fill the seats and get higher load factors on the planes we have. From there we can expand to new markets. It’s not about getting more seats, it’s about filling the seats we have.”
Morgan said he was concerned with the trend of the RTA and CBMR to set up a new market and then abandon it a year or two later. He cited many such examples, from Newark to Atlanta to Salt Lake City. “We need to provide stable service—look at what other markets are providing and we don’t compete. Plus the airlines are continuing to raise the fares and they won’t let us even talk about fares as part of our contract.
“We understand the schedule isn’t great, but we asked United Airlines to change the flight schedule to bring in a plane at night so it could leave in the mornings,” continued Morgan. “That would provide a better way for people to make connections. They said it would cost $1.9 million. And that’s just for the winter, since we already have that flight most of the year. We can’t afford that.”
A suggestion about starting an independent shuttle service between Gunnison and Denver was discussed. Cost comes into play. “For the tourist market, we rely on the spoke and hub system,” said Morgan. “We have looked at charter flights with the resort. We are open to looking at anything.”
“A lot of this is meant to provide information that can be used to answer questions from people on the street,” said Buck.
As for the tax increase idea, Morgan said additional revenue is needed. “We have to find a way to either generate more demand for flights or find a way to maintain the air service we have,” he said.
Morgan said if the RTA board wants to try to put a tax increase on the ballot for this November, a decision must be made soon. He hopes the board can decide by the March 2 meeting.
“It is something to think about,” said Crested Butte Councilman Roland Mason. “But if people vote it down, it will be detrimental to the RTA for a long time. The group probably wouldn’t try again for a few years.”
“This November would be a very difficult time for any tax increase to get passed,” said Mt. Crested Butte Councilman Gary Keiser.
“It appears there could be several requests from other groups looking for tax increases as well,” said Huckstep. “Look, everything the RTA does is marked by challenges. It’s not simple. From the types of planes that can fly in here to how the airlines asset their fares, it seems clear we’ll have some challenging decisions ahead of us.”
“The whole airline industry is changing,” agreed RTA executive director Scott Truex. “A lot of other places are facing the same challenges. It’s not just us.”
“We need to brainstorm all sorts of ideas,” said Wirsing. “Maybe we give people who drive here gas cards. Maybe we provide a luxury shuttle from DIA. We should be looking at other ideas.”
“I don’t want to give up on our airport,” said Morgan. “Focusing on Montrose will have an impact on people who don’t want to then take that two-hour bus ride. Maybe we focus on getting three or four daily flights from Denver. I agree we have to look at all options.”
In conjunction with the RTA discussion, the Tourism Association came up. “Does CBMR and the RTA feel the Tourism Association is letting them down by not focusing their advertising and marketing dollars on airlines?” asked Schmidt.
“I believe the TA is marketing by committee and is less effective than it could be,” responded Morgan. “I think the money could be better spent if it was independent of politics.”
Gunnison County Commissioner Paula Swenson explained that the Local Marketing District, comprised of the three county commissioners, was the entity voted in to distribute marketing dollars. “The TA is a separate entity and is contracted by the county to market the valley. The TA’s mission was to market the entire valley and do it for the entire year. Recollections can vary but that is the way it was set up.”
“We are not just an ad agency,” explained TA chairperson Wanda Bearth. “We do a lot more than that. The TA is designed to help with the RTA marketing and we are doing that. The bottom line right now is that the economy still stinks. That’s the main reason people aren’t coming. Plus, the scheduling and price of air has an impact on the decision of whether or not people choose to fly here.”
“I have issues with some of the structure of the TA,” said Buck. “The elected officials are part of an advisory board but can’t vote on how these pubic funds are spent.”
“I sit on the advisory committee as a town representative,” said Wirsing. “I’ve never felt stifled in voicing my opinion. Everyone second guesses what is decided at meetings.”
“I’m not comfortable with the town representatives not being able to vote,” said Mt. Crested Butte Councilperson and TA rep David O’Reilly.
“A subcommittee of the TA has been appointed to look at the bylaws, so that could change,” said Bearth.
“I’d definitely want to see it changed so the elected representatives can vote,” said Buck.
“That would be better,” agreed Wirsing.
“I have issues with the TA branding,” said Crested Butte Councilperson Shaun Matusewicz. “The branding is subpar at best. I’ve worked in the ad industry and that’s my professional opinion. Cartoons of cowboys do not speak to a broad range of folks looking to come to a place like this.”
“I spent some time at the Denver airport recently and sat by the rack with all the tourism brochures,” he continued. “I watched what people picked up. They were taking brochures from Steamboat and Aspen that had beautiful photos of mountains on them. That’s what they were looking for. Not one person took the Gunnison-Crested Butte TA piece. The pictures of the mountains spoke to people, not a stick figure cartoon.”
“That campaign was designed by an outside ad agency three years ago and the TA board voted to go with it,” said Bearth.
“Shaun’s concern with the cartoon is a good one,” said Huckstep. “It seems clear that other areas are presenting themselves distinct from us. My impression is that we’re not being presented as well. We have some incredibly unique and beautiful backdrops and there’s no reason why we aren’t using them.”
“The idea for this campaign was to have a kooky, memorable cartoon character,” said Bearth. “It was meant to be memorable and set us apart.”
“Throwing up in the hallway is memorable,” responded Matusewicz. “That’s not always a good thing.”
Matusewicz also pointed out that the social media aspects of the TA are weak. “The Facebook page is okay but the Twitter post hasn’t been updated in over a month.”
Bearth promised to take the concerns back to her board at the next meeting, scheduled for later in February.
Buses / Chamber / Pro Challenge
The two councils received an update on the Mountain Express. Board chairman Gary Keiser said the bus system transported 591,000 people in 2011 and drove 167,000 miles—a 1 percent increase over 2010. Bike transportation in the summer is growing exponentially. He emphasized that the bus fleet is old and buses need to be replaced.
“We are concerned about cuts to our grants and so we have hired a grant consultant,” he said. “He’s a former Colorado Department of Transportation employee.”
“One issue down the road is grant funding,” re-emphasized Mountain Express assistant transit manager Bill Quiggle. “If our funding continues to decline, we may have to take action such as cutting service dramatically or coming to the towns for financial help.”
On the RTA bus front, there was some discussion about reinstituting a fare for passengers. This year, the ride is free.
“If we charge a fee on the current schedule, we would probably save the RTA about $50,000,” said Truex, “and we’d carry probably 37 percent fewer people. The reason to charge a fee is to reduce the number of riders. You will never cover the actual cost of carrying a passenger. Public transportation never pays for itself. If it did, the private sector would be doing it. The goal of the RTA is to get as many onto public transportation as possible.”
There was some discussion over the Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce. “With the situation brought about by former executive director Richard Bond, the board has worked overtime in a difficult situation,” said Huckstep. “The question now, is what do we expect from the chamber?”
“The chamber has two primary functions,” said Mt. Crested Butte Councilperson and chamber rep Dave Clayton. “One is to be an advocate for business. The other is to run events and the visitor centers.
“It has indeed been a challenging year,” Clayton continued. “We are trying to recruit a new director. We have to restructure and scale back the financial commitments. We are going through staff changes. It is in total flux.”
Huckstep said the service contracts between the chamber and the towns expired last year. Clayton said that because there is no contract, and thus no compensation, it has put further financial pressure on the chamber.
Buck suggested it might be a good idea to combine the chamber with its down-valley sister, the Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce. “There are examples where a combined chamber has worked and the marketing division is rolled in. That could be a place for the TA or the funds that go the TA.”
“To me, the event aspect is the most important role of the chamber,” said Schmidt. “I hope it can keep the events it produces now and maybe add more.”
“Events can be used as an economic development tool,” agreed Morgan. “They can help make our economy stronger. Events bring people in who eat out at restaurants and stay in the hotels. Telluride is a place that has done it well. Maybe we should look at allocating resources to personnel that do events. It’s an opportunity I think we are missing.”
Speaking of events—Dave Ochs of the USA Pro Challenge Bike Race local organizing committee gave an update on the race coming back through the valley this coming summer. He said the overall organizers were very impressed with last year’s organization results and when asked what the valley could do differently, the answer was essentially, “Nothing. They are excited to come back through here again.”
Ochs presented both mayors with a signed and framed yellow jersey for the towns as mementoes from last year’s extravaganza.
The End…for a few months anyway
“The idea of these meetings is to lay the groundwork for discussion and ways to move forward,” concluded Buck. “I think we are doing that.”
“I think we have all received some valuable information from this meeting,” agreed Matusewicz.
Huckstep suggested that a future joint work session be held before the start of the summer season. There was general agreement to pursue such a second meeting and perhaps make them a three times per year affair.