More than 20 years ago, traveling from New Hampshire to California, Jason Wells stopped in Denver to visit a friend. As is the story for many transplants to Colorado, Wells fell in love with the state, the weather, the people, and says he’s “still visiting.” He earned his bachelor’s degree, law degree and a master of public administration degree from universities in Denver and Boulder. Wells, 44, now the city administrator for Manitou Springs, spent some time this week with the Business Journal talking about his first 10 months on the job and previous posts as the top administrator in Ophir, population 164, and Silverton, population 629. He is engaged to Cassandra Papp, a special education teacher.
Manitou Springs’ budget is plump, due in part to recreational marijuana sales taxes. What’s your take?
It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what our unmet needs really are in terms of flood recovery and mitigation. It really is. You can’t deny that it’s significant, but relative to the dollars we’re putting into projects we’re working on all over town, it’s nothing. It really is. We can’t talk about [the exact amount of sales taxes from the recreational marijuana store] because it’s proprietary. If there are three or less [in a business category that provides specific goods or services], we can’t disclose the information. We can say it has had a significant impact on the budget. The sales tax increase in 2014 was up 23 percent, about $486,000, over 2013. Taking into account as well that 2013 was when all the flooding happened and by all accounts, last year was a very good year. There are always variables in place.
What financial impact does Manitou foresee with its second recreational marijuana store opening this year?
Our estimates are based on 2014 with a modest growth quotient in there. Some people say demand is just going to be spread among two shops, and it won’t have any impact. Some people say they’re going to have different product and it might be more appealing to people. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. It wouldn’t seem intuitive that it would increase demand, but who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s just a crazy wild new world, this marijuana stuff. The lawsuits against the state, and the sheriffs have filed suit now. It’s crazy. We just go about our business and see how it plays out, especially at the staff level. We don’t get involved in the politics of it all. It’s just another revenue stream for us that we put in the bank and spend as directed.
“It’s just another revenue stream for us.”
[/pullquote]What is Manitou’s biggest challenge?
Flood recovery and mitigation. Those needs extend beyond our jurisdictional boundaries, up into the upper portions of the drainage. Coordinating with the county and other regional governments and nonprofits involved and trying to get the funds, there’s a lot to be done there. We’re doing a lot, but what remains is substantial. We’re really happy to have a full-time flood recovery manager. A lot of what we do is just regular, turning-the-wheels-of-government with exceptions — the mineral springs and the aquifer.
Tell us about the flood mitigation?
We’ve been lucky enough to get several grants for the $6 million Williams Canyon project. Our commitment is in the $400,000 range in terms of match dollars. That project alone is our entire general fund. It’s two phases of what might be a four-phase project, so half of it is the entire general fund — with marijuana and all our other sales tax revenue. In a relative sense, it’s just not that substantial in the flood mitigation realm.
What does Manitou Springs look to in hiring a new public works director?
The challenge there is finding the perfect person, which doesn’t exist. It’s a crucial, difficult position. You’ve got to be able to manage people and understand the mechanics of it all — how do we maintain a park … a road and … an aquifer … there’s [a lot]. We’re sitting on top of this big mammoth aquifer, and the question is: How can we use the mineral spring water in a way that celebrates what we are, but also ensures the sustainability of the aquifer as an asset? We have to police that ourselves.
What is your life goal?
I think I’m meeting it. I love this line of work. Last time I was in Denver, I worked for the big local government in the state, and I didn’t take to it. Professionally, this is it. This is the perfect-sized community to feed my aspirations professionally. Just big enough to be a professional organization and have a lot of assets at its disposal — but small enough that I get to know a little bit about everything that’s going on. I love it here. I don’t ever intend to go anyplace else.