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Aspen’s Economic Challenges: Part #3 - Personal Income

Photo by Elise Thatcher

Part 3 of a 3 part series.

Pitkin County residents are making less money than ten years ago. That’s one of the findings in a recent economic sustainability report released by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. One of the reasons could be that paychecks aren’t keeping up with inflation. Aspen Public Radio's Elise Thatcher reports.

Ford Frick helped put the report together. He’s managing director with the Denver firm BBC Research and Consulting. He says the report adds up all the money people make at work in Pitkin County... before taxes and not counting investments. Then the report compares that big pool of money with how many workers there are. The result?

"When you adjust for inflation, and this is a fairly modest assumption of about 2% per year inflation, what it’s saying is that the total income here is declining. Basically households have less money than they did twelve years ago."

Frick says there could be a lot of reasons why.

"Could be a change in the mix of jobs. That there are more lower paying jobs than there have been in the past. And it could simply be that the average wage and salary earned by people has simply declined."

Or if workers haven’t received a cost of living increase in their paychecks, that could also be a factor. We asked the top three employers in Pitkin County if they've included cost of living raises for their workers over the last ten years. Aspen Ski Company spokesman Jeff Hanle.

"Absolutely. Whenever possible and pretty frequently throughout that time period we’ve given out salary increases and bonuses. Even when the recession hit, we didn’t roll back wages, we didn’t lay off people. And we’ve continued to increase wages throughout that time period."

Hanle says on average wages have gone up three percent over the last ten years. The next largest employer in Pitkin County is the county and City of Aspen government combined. They’ve they’ve handled cost of living changes differently over the last decade. Before the recession, Pitkin County largely offered merit increases and added a cost of living adjustment in 2008. That was also at three percent. Then wages were frozen in two thousand ten, eleven and twelve. City workers had a similar wage freeze in two thousand nine through two thousand eleven...and then a cost of living increase, called a “cola,” last year. Alissa Farrell is Aspen’s Human Resources Director.

"The city did provide a two percent increase across the board for regular full time employees in two thousand twelve. Other than the two percent increase, the city have been offered in ten years, the city has not offered a cola in the last ten years."

Farrell says merit pay before the recession was seen as a way to cover any increases in the cost of living in Pitkin County. The third biggest employer in Pitkin County is the St. Regis Hotel. A spokeswoman with its parent company said proprietary reasons prevent them from disclosing whether or not workers there, have gotten cost of living increases over the last ten years.

As for other jobs, Consultant Ford Frick pointed to another sector that’s taken a hit with the recession.

"Certainly a decline in the higher paying skilled construction jobs contributed to this."

So, how does this compare to what’s going on across Colorado? Bill Thoennes is with the state’s Department of Labor and Employment.

"We took the chart that the Pitkin Chamber produced, and against that a statewide chart that we compiled showing similar employment and wage data, and we do find that from 2000 to about 2009 or early 2010 there seems to be a very similar trajectory."

But in the third quarter of 2010, something changed.

"Pitkin County seems to be lagging the state in terms of employment and wages, most notably the wage shows that state wages seems to be improving just a little bit, where Pitkin County tends to still be leveled off a little bit.”

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