Democratic event's cost upsets Aspenites

Footing security bill leaves taxpayers griping

July 18, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ASPEN, Colo. -- This is a town of good and plenty, where a majority of the population can be divided roughly between the haves and the have-mores.

While ski slopes in winter and cultural events in summer have made Aspen one of America's prime vacation destinations, it is now an impressive symbol of the nation's economic boom: For almost 60 percent of those who pay real estate taxes in Pitkin County, where Aspen is the county seat, their residences here are second homes.

And what second homes. Small Victorians near downtown sell for as much as $3 million; lavish houses hugging the surrounding mountainsides go for much more. But not all of Aspen's 5,600 year-round residents are always thankful that they live and work in wonderland. A fair number are upset that the town government is absorbing the costs of a major Democratic Party event next weekend that will include a visit by President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The event is largely planned as a thank-you from the Democratic National Committee to some of its biggest campaign donors, 100 or so people who gave $50,000 each or helped raise $100,000. The weekend also includes a fund-raising picnic at the (second) home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

Last summer, when the Democrats staged the first such weekend event here, Clinton's visit helped them raise about $1 million. This year, they expect to raise even more.

With all that money around, many Aspenites, including Sheriff Bob Braudis, cannot understand why local taxpayers have to pay for all the added security needed for a presidential visit. Last year, Braudis said, the event cost the town $89,000 for items such as food, housing and even radio batteries for 300 officers from neighboring law-enforcement agencies who volunteered to help out.

"They were like flood victims," Braudis said. "We housed them and fed them at the high school and gave them cots to sleep on. The janitor had turned off the boiler for the summer, so they all had to take cold showers, then wake up to pancakes for breakfast."

And it was not as if the volunteers got the glamorous jobs, he added.

"The Secret Service cleared the bridges, looking for any bombs," the sheriff said. "But then we had to guard the bridges 24 hours to make sure no one planted any. When Clinton went to sleep, so did the Secret Service."

While presidential trips are fairly routine in their security requirements and the demands they place on the local venue, Aspenites assert that someone else -- the Secret Service, the White House, the Democratic Party -- should pay for what is essentially a political event.

The Aspen Daily News recently asked readers in its "Tipline," "Who should pay for Clinton's visit?" The paper reported on June 27 that "not one person believes that the local taxpayers should pick up the tab."

A collection of reader responses was printed under the headline "Tipliners to Clinton: `Pay up, or stay out.' "

Mayor Rachel Richards, who prevailed in a four-way nonpartisan election last month, said she was thrilled to have the big-money Democrats in town. Richards played down any inconvenience they might be to the town or this year's $22.7 million budget, pointing out: "Aspen is a community that likes to have controversy before breakfast every morning. They need something like this."

Braudis said he had appealed to the Democratic National Committee for a gesture of good will in the form of a donation to local charities to match the city's costs. His reasoning went this way: "If I have to pay $20,000 for this out of my budget, that's $20,000 I don't have for other programs."

So far, he said, the Democrats have not responded to his plea. But Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said, "The DNC has not received any such request, and if we did, we would refer it automatically to the Secret Service."

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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