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."
But every year the city kept overlooking the merchants of Welton Street.
The Welton Street Maintenance District was formed in 1985, largely because the city's planning office and the Mayor's Office of Economic Development "wanted to improve the disposition and appearance of the Five Points area," remembers Norman Harris, who runs Wise and Harris Liquors on Welton.
The district was limited to the 2600 and 2700 blocks of Welton because, Harris says, "at that time, that was the most blighted situation on the Points." Besides, he adds, "some of the other landlords felt like they couldn't afford it."
McKinley Harris (no relation to Norman Harris) was an early member of the maintenance-district board. A longtime Five Points property owner and one of the community's acknowledged leaders, he has his hand in eight properties in the two-block district, both through his own business and through the nonprofit Thomas W. Bean Foundation, of which he is a boardmember. The annual district assessments on his private holdings are $770.76; the Bean Foundation, which owns the Casino Cabaret, has assessments totaling $4,758.06.
Other prominent property owners are Deep Rock Water and Charlie Cousins, who owns Kapre's Fried Chicken, the D&D Lounge and a store owned by Al Richardson, another longtime maintenance-district boardmember. "We've been paying dearly for it," Cousins says of the district. "I'm getting tired of paying." This year his assessments totaled $1,147.
Over the years, the Welton Street district assessments have been rising--lately, to compensate for shortfalls. From 1986 through 1990 the total yearly assessment was $10,300; from 1991 to 1996 it rose to $11,800 annually; last year it was raised to $15,814--with no input from the neighborhood.
"What was happening with the district running out of funds before the end of the year was the city having to bail them out for the last couple of months," Montoya says. The city would reimburse itself from the following year's assessment, which reduced the amount of money the district had for future maintenance and increased the likelihood that the district would run out of money again. "The city decided we didn't want to do that anymore," Montoya explains.
"When it was first set up, it was set up correctly," says Norman Harris. "But as time goes on, a lot of guys didn't have time to be on the board, to do the job correctly."
In the meantime, the money kept flowing to Parker, who's had the district-maintenance contract since 1989. Last year he earned $13,510 of the $14,453.50 the district collected. He also co-signed on his own paychecks totaling $9,720.
Parker is the former head of the Five Points Business Association, the organization that essentially controls the goings-on along Welton Street. He says his background in construction work and overseeing a crew of janitors qualifies him for the maintenance contract.
And he says he's doing a good job, starting work every morning at 4 a.m. "Everything I've been asked to do, I did it," he says. "When they had the street festival, I come down and took the trash out. That's not even part of my job."
Parker says he keeps getting the contract because he's the only person who's ever submitted a bid. But according to Norman Harris, the job was never really put out for bid. "They left it up to the board to pick someone," he says. And the board, he adds, was basically McKinley Harris, a friend of Parker's. (Vern Harris says his father, McKinley, is ill and unavailable for comment.)
Norman Harris describes Parker as a "strong, independent" type who knows which side his bread is buttered on. "He knows the merchants don't pay his salary," says Harris. "He's supposed to sweep, but some days he doesn't feel like it. He sees a dead rat for five days, he ignores it. His attitude is poor."
Except when he's around a property owner who pays his salary, that is. "If one of the boardmembers responds, he does it," adds Harris.
"You don't always have time to be aware," says Tommie Dotson, director of the Five Points Business Recovery and Development Association. "You have to work your business. The merchants are not the ones paying for it. When merchants come to work and the snow is removed, it's like, 'One less job I have to do.' Property owners never had a problem with it."
But along Welton Street, many merchants didn't even know there was a maintenance district, let alone whom they could complain to if maintenance was poor. And even though Public Works recognized that the Welton Street district kept running out of money, it didn't step in to check out the problem.
"The city should have maybe insisted on some things when they started to run out of money, but we didn't," Montoya says. "The problem we were aware of, but nobody was complaining. They had boardmembers appointed and no board meetings. One person was running it."
"It wasn't the city's fault," Crayton Jones says. "It was McKinley Harris's fault. He was supposed to call the meeting and notify Montoya to come to the meeting, and if Montoya couldn't come, he was supposed to send a representative."
But there were no meetings.
It wasn't until December 1996 that Denver City Councilman Hiawatha Davis started hearing grumbling from Welton Street merchants; in response, he helped get Jones appointed to the maintenance-district board.
Last summer, after Jones threatened to dissolve the district, Montoya finally stepped in and became involved in Welton Street politics. Once on the board, Jones says, it took over a year for him to "filter in what they were doing. I just couldn't do it overnight. When I found out I had the right to call a board meeting, I called a meeting."
The meeting this January was the first ever for the thirteen-year-old maintenance district.
Parker wasn't invited to the meeting at the Glenarm Recreation Center, but he heard about it and figured he'd better show up to defend himself. People there were "unhappy about the appearance of the street. They wanted to talk without Parker," says Norman Harris. "He was the employee, they were the owners. Only the owners and the board were allowed. They wouldn't start the meeting with him there."
Parker says Jones tried to force him out. "He threatened to put me out of the meeting," says Parker. "That's his words. He comes talking about how I didn't have a right to be there. I knew if he laid his hands on me, I was goin' to jail. I'm 66 years old. I ain't gonna let nobody hit me."
Parker called the cops on his cell phone. But when the cops arrived, they asked Parker to leave. He did, after first issuing a warning to the city.
"The only thing I said to Montoya was, unless they give me a thirty-day notice, I will see them in court," he says. "That's what my agreement calls for."
By now, though, Jones was not the only person complaining about Parker. Several months ago, Willie Wallace, who runs Five Points Beauty Supply, sent a letter to Public Works complaining about Parker's performance. "The Welton Street pedestrian mall is in very bad condition," she wrote. "The maintenance is most undesirable." She listed why: few trees, bad lights, "stained and unclean" sidewalks, poor snow removal. "I am not pleased with how these boardmembers have handled my tax dollars," she wrote.
Her daughter, Catherine Robinson, sent another letter, noting that she did not see "the businesses along the Welton Street pedestrian mall getting the benefits of these assessments."
Although both letters were sent to the city, McKinley Harris responded. He told Wallace that he was "unaware of any dead trees and probably will not know anything until spring," that "all lights are presently working" and that the "sidewalks are cleaned every morning six days a week."
McKinley Harris is just covering for his pal Parker, Jones says. "McKinley, Big Al, Parker--they're all friends," he adds. "That's why they band together to give him the contract again. They're connected together."
"I'm a friend of everyone down here," responds Al Richardson. "I think we need some unity in street maintenance. We should not get angry and bring personal dislike into this."
Richardson's not alone in praising Parker. "I really think the district helped," says John Selman, who owns a record store across the street from Jones's place. "I would rather pay someone else and create a job for someone."
Leonard Dixon, who runs Joe's Shoe Repair, says he thinks Parker has done an excellent job. "What Crayton don't understand is he's down here at five in the morning," says Dixon. "By eight or nine in the morning, the winds blow, and here comes the trash."
The Welton Street Maintenance District held its third official meeting on May 7. Jones was voted in as treasurer, and Urban Spectrum publisher Bea Harris was named president. They are now the only two who can disburse district monies. (Bea Harris did not return several phone calls from Westword.)
Jones brought three new bids on the maintenance contract to the May meeting. Two were for less than the $700-a-month fee Parker is requesting; the third was almost double that amount.
The boardmembers decided not to accept any of the bids and voted to keep Parker on the job for another month--until they can decide exactly what services they want in the future.
The fourth meeting in the thirteen-year history of the Welton Street Maintenance District is set for June 13. At that time, the board will determine who gets the maintenance contract for next year.
Catherine Robinson says she's willing to give the city a chance to make sure things run smoothly. "Once everything is brought right in the open, we'll see if there is a resolve from the city," she says. "It's not fair to judge at this time."
But Jones vows to remain vigilant, no matter who gets the contract. "I ain't tryin' to uncover anybody," he says. "We ain't been treated fair."
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