A property tax to preserve the past
October 8, 2005
Editor’s note: Since this week’s cover story concerns the Aspen School District bond election, we decided to include several other local election issues in this edition of The Times Weekly: the Aspen Historic Parks and Recreation District, the Aspen Valley Hospital mill levy extension and two ballot questions in Eagle County. This is by no means a complete list of the items on the ballot, however. For more election coverage and information, check The Aspen Times daily or http://www.aspentimes.com/section/ELECTION.
The Aspen Historical Society needs money. So the nonprofit, which manages five historic sites and oversees an archive containing 15,000 photos, slides and negatives, newspapers dating back to 1881, and a collection of more than 4,000 objects, is asking taxpayers for help.A measure on the Nov. 1 ballot would create the “Aspen Historic Park & Recreation District,” which, if approved by voters, would collect .30 mills, or $2.83 for each $100,000 of market value on all homes in the district. The district itself would share the same boundaries as the Aspen School District.Majority approval on questions 5D, 5E and 5F would also create a board of five community members who would oversee the funds collected, along with the nonprofit’s board of directors. The district board members must be elected by the community as well in November, but all five prospective members – Judith Bleiler, Lynne Dunlop, Robert Throm, Darryl Grob and Warren Klug – are running unopposedThe mill levy is expected to raise $487,489 for the Historical Society in 2007, and in the meantime the nonprofit hopes to get a bridge loan from a government entity or bank, to be repaid over the next three years.
In addition, if the ballot issues are approved, the historical society plans to craft a new strategic plan with help from community members.Executive Director Georgia Hanson is optimistic about passage of the special district. She believes most locals see the preservation of Aspen’s rich history as an essential service. The vast majority of museums in the U.S. receive public funding, Hanson says, and the historical society should have pursued the idea years ago.”We are the keepers of the Aspen story, we are the guardians of our history,” Hanson said. “The miracle is that the society kept going as long as it did without public funding.”But Aspen resident Bert Myrin, the only Aspenite so far to speak out publicly against the proposal, believes the nonprofit should pursue private donations more aggressively rather than turning to taxpayers.”Nonprofits throughout the valley, if they are well-run, well-respected organizations, have vast resources to draw on – the charitable donors in the valley,” Myrin said. “It’s very competitive, there’s no question about that.”
Eventually, Hanson hopes to generate 33 percent of the historical society’s income through charitable contributions. (The other two thirds would come from public funding and “earned income” – tickets, fees and the like.) But for now, she said, it’s hard to focus any attention on the society’s core mission – educational programs, keeping historic buildings open for the public – while constantly raising money. Plus, she added, it’s hard to raise charitable contributions for day-to-day operational costs. That’s what the property tax funds would pay for.”[Donors] want a specific exhibit that can be named after them – they want to see their money going somewhere other than for the person who is answering the phone,” she said.If the ballot measures don’t pass, the Aspen Historical Society would become a volunteer-only outfit with no paid staff, Hanson said. The nonprofit already has more than 25 dedicated volunteers helping out with operations, but a “no” result on Nov. 1 would mean that the Wheeler/Stallard Museum, the historical archives and other assets would rarely be open to the public.
Last year, before Pitkin County and the city of Aspen gave the nonprofit $273,000 in an emergency fund, the historical society did not have a full-time archivist, and got only 45 visits from the public, Hanson said. This year, since the historical society used some of that money to hire an archivist, the archives have already seen 400 visitors.”Our public connection would go away with a strictly volunteer society,” Hanson said.Once the organization is more financially stable, Hanson has a long wish list, including more programming at Ashcroft ghost town, improving the ranching exhibits at the Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum and returning the Wheeler/Stallard Museum to a Victorian-era interior.”And given community support, I’d look at the potential for a ski museum that probably wouldn’t happen until after I’m dead,” she said.Whether Aspenites consider those things worth $2.83 for $100,000 of assessed value remains to be seen.