Denver officials are struggling to find the money to build a sixth runway at Denver International Airport. But one longtime political ally of Mayor Wellington Webb has had no problem landing her own DIA revenue stream.
Wilma Taylor, a veteran political activist and Webb campaign worker, will soon be appointed special assistant to Denver aviation director Jim DeLong. The salary for that full-time job hasn't been set yet. But records on file at the city auditor's office show that last year Taylor was paid $56,820 as a private consultant to the Webb administration. Her job: to provide "community outreach to the private sector." Much of that "outreach" has involved coordinating a thus-far unsuccessful effort to install a herd of buffalo along Pena Boulevard.
Taylor makes no secret of her close political ties to Webb. "I worked in Mayor Webb's first campaign back in 1972, when he first ran for state representative," she says. "I've known Wellington and Wilma for years."
After the latest election, says Taylor, she went to see Webb. "He asked me what I was interested in doing, and I told him I wanted to learn more and do more at the airport," she recalls. "He suggested I talk to Jim DeLong."
Following that meeting, Taylor was offered the special-assistant post with DeLong--an appointed position that is not part of the city's career-service system. Taylor says she knows her appointment has raised eyebrows around the city.
"People say, `What do you know about airports?'" she says. "I've worked on airport-related projects for the last six years. If people feel I got the job because I worked in the mayor's campaign, that's their prerogative."
The projects Taylor has worked on for the city, however, have had little to do with aviation. In 1989, for example, Taylor received a one-year contract from the administration of former mayor Federico Pena to provide "outreach to the minority community" for the city's airport hiring effort. Specifically, she was paid $46,690 to help contractors find women and minority workers they could hire at DIA.
She later helped set up the Denver Airport Employment Office, she says, and worked as the director of community relations for the Stapleton Tomorrow planning effort set up under Pena to help map out Stapleton's re-use. During that period, she says, she was actually on the payroll of CMTS, a private company that had received the city contract on the Stapleton job. CMTS belongs to controversial contractor and Webb supporter King Harris.
Under her 1994 contract with the city, Taylor spent most of her time rounding up information about buffalo. Mayor Webb has made the DIA bison herd one of the top ten priorities for his second term, operating under the assumption that the four-legged behemoths would help distinguish DIA from other airports. But getting the buffalo to stampede to DIA has proven as difficult for the city as snagging Southwest Airlines.
"We're in the process of rethinking the project," Taylor says. "We're taking another look at how we can do it. We don't know if it's cost-effective."
The problem, according to Taylor's calculations, is that each buffalo needs twenty acres of lush grass per year to survive, and the city only has 330 acres of buffalo-suitable acreage along Pena Boulevard. The land would have to be seeded and watered to grow enough food for the huge creatures, which can grow to more than 2,000 pounds. DIA officials are hoping to find a contractor who will support the herd in return for the potentially lucrative opportunity to sell buffalo products inside the airport, but so far no one has been willing to take a chance on the venture. Says Taylor, "We're seeing what we can do to make it something private industry can support."
In her new position as an assistant to DeLong, Taylor will continue to lead the charge for airport buffalo. She'll also serve as liaison between DIA and the Denver City Council, work on a new project to find private funding for landscaping at the airport and help coordinate airport staffing in DeLong's absence. (The airport boss will be serving as chairman of the North American division of Airports Council International, the main airport trade group, and is expected to be traveling frequently; according to DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon, DeLong will continue to receive his full city salary of $138,480.)
Taylor says she's still negotiating with DeLong over her new salary. "The mayor, Jim and I have been talking about this for the last two weeks," she adds.
And Taylor notes that she's enthusiastic about taking a greater role in actual airport management. "I've been around airport operations, but my focus has been in the community," Taylor says. "This is a new challenge. Airport operations is an exciting field."
Taylor says she worked hard on the mayor's most recent re-election campaign, but she doesn't feel that that should preclude her from working for the city. "There's nothing wrong with someone allowing you to have a job just because you worked in their campaign," she says. "I know that I try to do the best job I can. I tip my hat to Jim DeLong for allowing me this opportunity.