Mountain Ñews: Ski towns making cuts 

ASPEN, Colo. - As evidence continues to arrive of a more severe recession than expected, city halls continue to trim their budgets. The current wave of cuts is most directly affecting employees of ski town governments.

As was expected, Aspen has cut another $1 million, on top of $2.4 million already. The budget as it now stands is at not quite $23 million.

The new cuts are resulting in an average $1,700 reduction in benefits to employees. If necessary, the next round of cuts will be to the health, dental and vision plans for employees.

Steve Barwick, the city manager, said the government can't afford increased health insurance costs at a rate of 8 per cent a year, when the general fund revenues are only growing at 1 to 2 per cent annually.

Cuts made so far amount to 11 per cent decrease in the general fund for 2009. Citing city officials, The Aspen Times reports that tax revenues are expected to drop 12 per cent this year.

Telluride, meanwhile, has begun laying off city employees, six altogether. "Generally speaking they have known that something like this could happen for a long time," said Stu Fraser, the town's mayor. The Telluride Watch reports that the job cuts will save the town $400,000 through the year - but the town is still short $2 million.

Breckenridge is also eyeing a second tier of cut that include delaying an affordable-housing project. A third tier would include cuts to the staff.

Skier count down 20%

KETCHUM, Idaho - The skier count at Sun Valley Resort was down 20 per cent through March. The recession, so-so snow conditions and a reduction in commercial airline air service were all fingered as causes of the decline, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

Skier numbers flat, revenue down

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. - Skier days have been flat from last year, but revenue for Intrawest at its Mammoth Mountain operation has been down 5 per cent, with significant drop-offs in both retail outlets and ski school, reports The Sheet.

Rusty Gregory, ski area manager at Mammoth, told a forum recently that getting financing has become much more difficult. Before the recession, a ski area operator could borrow up to five times its cash flow. Now, that's been reduced to three times cash flow - but only for those who have a track record. Those without a credit history won't be able to get money.

It's quieter than usual

ASPEN, Colo. - Winter was retreating last week in Aspen. On the south side of Smuggler Street, in the shade of the Victorians and their modern replacements, shoulder-high snowpiles lingered from the onslaught of early winter. Across the street, like a nicely turned ankle, the south-facing lawns were showing slips of green.

Winter stormed into Aspen in a major way in December, smashing at least one record for total snowfall accumulation at a local ski mountain. But March was entirely docile. "It's been spring here for a month," explained a local resident, ignoring a brutish but brief storm sequence of a few days before.

Aspen was also quiet, at least compared to what March is usually like. Advance bookings for last week were 53 per cent, compared to 78 per cent of capacity for the same week last year.

The real estate margins might be sagging even worse. Along Highway 82, which cuts through the town's middle, a resident of a small house that dates to the mining era said her house a year ago was worth $3 million. Today, it's worth maybe half that, she said. The same house, if located in Denver, looks to be worth about $200,000.

At the Aspen Institute's Energy Forum, a volunteer mentioned that he had been forced to spend a day at his condominium, getting it ready for a showing. He hoped to sell it, he said, and cut his losses. His mortgage payment was nearly $7,000 a month.

He had gotten out of the housing market once before, he said. That was in 2006, and he had been spooked by the rapidly escalating prices. But then prices had kept on rising, so he jumped back in. A lot of people then were sure that the rules didn't apply to Aspen.

At Explorer Booksellers, select titles were 40 per cent off in what was advertised as a locals' sale. Somewhere among the shelves was a book called " Aspen: The Quiet Years." The book, by Kathleen Krieger, tells about the time between the mining bust of 1893 and the start of commercial skiing in 1947.

During that that half-century, many of Aspen's grand old Victorians had begun to fall apart. Aspen now isn't as quiet as it was during that era, but it's far more quiet than it has been.

Immigrants advised to be ready

PARK CITY, Utah - Attendees of St. Mary's Catholic Church were advised, in a communication read in Spanish, of changes to be implemented in Utah beginning in July. A new law requires local sheriff's deputies and police officers to arrest people they find, in the course of their other duties, who are in the United States without proof of legal residency.

Father Bob Bussen, a religious leader at the church, told the Park Record that there is a "growing fear in the immigrant community, legal and non-legal, that any immigrant is up for suspicion. They're very concerned that they're going to lose their jobs or that the police will pick them up. They're afraid to open their doors."

Immigrants were warned at the church to carry the telephone number of an attorney in case of arrest and to have a plan should a family member get deported.

The new law also requires public employers and businesses that contract with the government to use a system that verifies the work status of new employees. Also, the law requires government agencies to verify the immigration status of someone who applies for state or local benefits.

"They're going to go out and arrest your baker and your landscaper and put them in jail simply for being here illegally," said Bussen. "We'll be using our jails as holding pens when we need them to get criminals."

The bill's premise, he added, is to "create fear, and the bill should scare the hell out of all of us. We would have the same fear if, as Americans, we were stopped by the police."

Buses returning to highways

RED LODGE, Mont. - The tracks that used to carry the trains that connected the small towns of the West are mostly gone, the steel rails recycled decades ago. Gone, too, are the buses that once linked the towns. Greyhound sticks mostly to interstate highways now, focusing on stops in big cities.

Into this void are now coming new efforts to create a bus-based transportation network. Just recently came news from Colorado that a new bus service called the Mountaineer Route will connect Gunnison - and by extension, Crested Butte - with five-times weekly trips to Denver. Also linked on the 215-mile route are the mountain towns of Salida, Buena Vista and Fairplay.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and eight local governments and agencies are underwriting the new bus service.

There is also news from the greater Yellowstone region. The Yellowstone Business Partnership, a group based in Red Lodge, Mont., has announced plans for a tri-state transport system, to link towns in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

"It's about closing the service gaps," said Janice Brown, executive director. "If someone tries to use public transportation from Billings, (Mont.) to Jackson, (Wyo.) there is no way to do it other than invest a lot of personal time and money. Greyhound sticks to the interstates now... We haven't made it easy for someone without a vehicle."

Obstacles exist, notes the Carbon County News . Insurance policies commonly prohibit motor carriers from taking riders, although Fed Ex in Switzerland has moved past that limitation. Too, jurisdictions must be crossed, although again there is a precedent: the Jackson Hole-based START public bus system is now transporting riders to and from Teton County, Idaho, where many of Jackson Hole's workers live.

Ironically, Yellowstone National Park was developed partly in response to the railroads. From the depots in Bozeman and Livingston to the north of the park, visitors were transported to within the park. No such public transportation now exists.

Builders like green

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. - Interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy continues to grow in Summit County. A day-long building science forum hosted by the Summit County Builders Association, the third in a series, drew 125 builders, artisans, and real-estate professionals.

"This field is taking off so fast that you pick up almost anything that has to do with renewable energy, and it's going to take off," said Eric Westerhoff, energy systems engineer of Innovative Energy.

The Summit Daily News tells of presentations about solar photovoltaic, which converts sunshine into electrical, and solar thermal, which produces hot water. There were also discussion about geoexchange, systems which circulate fluid in underground pipes to extract the steady 55-degree heat found 8 to 10 feet below ground.

Tim Crane, a developer, said he has seen a trend of homeowners wanting smaller homes of 2,5000 to 3,500 square feet, with luxuries but less maintenance. Part of that equation involves renewable energy. "Solar offers feel-good, intrinsic value, " he said.

Virginian not smiling

JACKSON, Wyo. - The Virginian is unique within Teton County. It is the only bar or restaurant in which a person can strike a match and then take a deep drag off a pipe, cigar, or cigarette. All other bars and restaurants have banned smoking.

But by late May, the Virginian will also have to post a no-smoking sign. After hearing testimony for two years, the Teton District Board of Health has adopted a smoking ban for businesses in the county except for hotel and motel rooms, private clubs, and tobacco shops.

Dr. Brent Blue, the instigator of the rule, told the Jackson Hole News & Guide that he is excited. "Tobacco is the single greatest cause of irreversible disease," he said.

Mike Kraft, manager of the Virginian, said he was disappointed. Customers have the choice of not patronizing a business should they not wish to inhale smoke, he said.

Wyoming law allows boards of health to issue rules to protect public health, but this is the first time the authority has been used to regulate smoking, notes the newspaper.

Bob Farris dies at age 72

BRECKENRIDGE, Wyo. - Bob Farris, who was sheriff of Summit County from 1975 to 1983 and a black man in a largely white community, has died at the age of 72.

Farris had sold used cars and worked in the beauty supply businesses before he was hired by a sheriff. In 1974, he ran for sheriff as an independent. This was shortly after the movie Blazing Saddles, a comedy that featured a black sheriff, was released. On his watch as sheriff, the Hell's Angels held a rendezvous in Summit County, at a place called Officer's Gulch, and the gathering was held without significant incident.

Grizzlies testify that spring has come

BANFF, Alberta - In the early days of spring, two male grizzly bears were seen in Banff National Park. The bears were seen feeding on a deer carcass. Researchers said the bears had probably wintered at higher elevations, as they normally do, but smelled the carcass and made their way down. Grizzlies were seen even earlier last year, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook, but females and cubs usually don't emerge until late April or early May.

Aspen continues to shrink carbon base

ASPEN, Colo. - Aspen continues to plug away at efforts that it hopes will substantially reduce its carbon footprint. Altogether, 80 per cent of the electricity sold through the town government now comes from hydroelectric, wind, and other renewable sources, and the city hopes to boost that to 100 per cent.

The newest effort is a rate structure that applies to the two-thirds of Aspen residents who get their electricity through the city government. The new rate structure that went into effect April 1 increases rates slightly for customers who use only a little electricity, but will inflate electric bills by 30 per cent to the consumers of large amounts of electricity.

One goal of these new higher rates may be to spur conservation, which is defined as the conscious effort to use less energy; and also efficiency, by encouraging the use of technology such as Energy Star-rated refrigerators that require less energy. To help prod this effort, the city is providing $250 toward energy audits, which are designed to show where electricity - but also heat - is being used poorly.

Another goal is to raise money, an estimated $300,000 annually, to help pay for a variety of new energy sources. The most immediate plan is to buy more wind-generated electricity from farms located in Nebraska.

In addition, voters last November approved a bond issue to pay for installation of a run-of-the-river hydroelectric on a local creek. As well, solar panels are to be more extensively deployed, and planning continues to test the potential for tapping the earth's heat through both shallow and deeper wells using technology variously called geoexchange and geothermal. The city hopes to get federal stimulus money to fund some of these projections.

Since 2004, even before the city began its well-known Canary Initiative to tamp down greenhouse gases, the city's utility department has cut consumption of electricity produced by burning coal and natural gas by 50 per cent.

Some of these new projects will probably get the city to 90 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. Getting the city to 100 per cent of non-renewable sources will be far more difficult, suggested John Hines, the city's renewable energy utilities manager in an interview with The Aspen Times.

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