By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
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By Michael Roberts
Crayton Jones surveys Welton Street, the spine of Five Points. Outside his C&B Cleaners at 2748 Welton, he spots four barren trees.
"The trees are dead," he says. "He's supposed to maintain 'em all."
He's talking about James Parker, former American Legion commander and longtime Points activist. Over the past decade, Parker has collected more than $100,000 to keep the sidewalks clean, the snow cleared, the lights working and the trees alive and watered. Between 1995 and 1997 alone, Parker earned $36,310--all of which came from extra taxes paid by Welton Street property owners.
But Parker has done practically nothing for that money, Jones says, and some property owners are getting tired of paying it out. "It's high time things were done right," Jones adds. "This man is cleaning up for years, and we've never had maintenance. He sweeps in the gutter; he doesn't even sweep on the sidewalk."
"Ain't no way nobody's gonna please Crayton Jones," Parker counters. "Only one person in Denver gonna please Crayton Jones, and that's Crayton Jones."
But now Crayton Jones is in a position where he can please himself: Last month he was appointed treasurer of the Welton Street Maintenance District, one of nineteen such districts in the city. In many of the retail enclaves throughout Denver--from Five Points to several blocks on Broadway near the Mayan Theater to the intersection of 32nd and Lowell--property owners have struck a deal with the city wherein the city pays for aesthetic improvements and the property owners pay to maintain them.
For the most part, these maintenance districts have been a success. But in Five Points, where the district covers the 2600 and 2700 blocks of Welton, some property owners paint a picture of a minor fiefdom, a maintenance district run not by the board, but by one man, McKinley Harris; a district where the work does not go out to bid, but instead goes straight to Parker, a friend of McKinley Harris's, who then does the work poorly. And until a few months ago, they complain, the city was providing no oversight of its own program.
Even the city agrees that it dropped the ball.
"Paperwork-wise, everything was fine," says Robert Montoya, the maintenance-district coordinator for the Denver Department of Public Works, which oversees the operation of the districts, since August 1996. "But the way things were operating wasn't fine at all." Parker and Harris "were basically spending all the money," Montoya says. "The city said we had to stop that."
The city was pretty slow to do so, though. The district had been running short of money for several years, and Parker co-signed some of his own paychecks in 1997, a violation of district policy. In fact, the Welton Street Maintenance District board had never met--another violation of policy. But it wasn't until January that Montoya and a Public Works colleague actually met with the board--and then only because of Jones's efforts.
"I opened up a can of worms," Jones says. "What they're trying to do is close it up. They've been using up all of our money."
The city started its maintenance-district program in 1982, with a partnership between the city and RTD to support work on the new Sixteenth Street Mall. From there the concept gradually worked its way to other parts of the city.
In exchange for the city agreeing to pay for streetscape improvements to commercial blocks in low- and moderate-income areas, property owners in these areas agree to tax themselves to pay for maintenance of the district.
Over the past fifteen years the city has paid out an estimated $6 million to $8 million on these improvements, according to Jerry Garcia, program manager for neighborhood facilities and improvements with Denver's Community Development Agency. The money comes through a variety of mechanisms, but primarily from federal Community Development Block Grant money and citywide bond-project packages.
About $500,000 has been spent in Five Points alone, in an area that runs from 24th to 30th streets along Welton and spills over to two blocks on Washington.
The main advantage of the maintenance-district arrangement is that businesses get a "significant amount of streetscaping" from the city, says Cyndi Kerins, who's with the West 38th Avenue Pedestrian Mall that runs from the Fox Viaduct to Mariposa Street. The main disadvantage, she adds, is the additional property tax the city assesses those businesses each year.
Each maintenance district is managed by a board consisting of local property owners who are recommended for board seats by the Department of Public Works and whose nominations are sent to the mayor's office for approval. The board determines each district's yearly budget and calculates an assessment for each property owner based on frontage. (The longer a store stretches along a block, no matter what its height or other dimensions, the more it is assessed.) After that, the city is supposed to review the districts' performances on an annual basis.
"Basically, the city goes through each year and audits each district," says Joe Gehauf, who's with the West 38th Avenue Pedestrian Mall. "If you don't like it, you can change anything you want. If you're gonna let 'em take the money out of your taxes and not wonder where it goes, it's the merchants' fault."