Aspen City Council pushes for November vote on Wheeler RETT
City leaders agreed Monday to pose a November ballot question asking Aspen voters to expand a tax mainly benefiting the Wheeler Opera House to include other local nonprofit arts organizations.
Residents, however, might be hearing soon from the city about their thoughts on potentially repurposing the 0.5% Wheeler real estate transfer tax (RETT) so that it funds the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts and removes its $100,000 cap on arts grants.
The city is considering polling voters before finalizing the ballot question due Sept. 3 to the Pitkin County Elections office, in advance of the Nov. 2 election. An unfavorable showing might prompt the city to hold off the question until another time or back off altogether, said City Councilwoman Rachel Richards.
“It is something we would need to start immediate work on in order to get it done pretty quickly, because the sampling size we need is a reasonable size,” City Manager Sara Ott told council members during Monday’s work session.
Richards and Councilman Ward Hauenstein suggested holding the vote in November 2022, which is when mid-term elections will be conducted, could draw a larger turnout of voters. But they agreed to focus on this fall after other council members and supporters of the initiative said the matter can’t wait until then.
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Maintaining, operating, improving and preserving the opera house would remain the focal point of the RETT, members of Aspen City Council agreed, while removing the grants cap would free up more funds to support other arts groups.
Local nonprofits currently receive $400,000 in annual support from the city’s arts grant program, which includes the $100,000 earmarked from RETT collections. The remaining $300,000 comes from Wheeler Opera House revenue collected through concessions sales, ticket sales and rent from the restaurant and art gallery that are building tenants, according to Ott.
The question would need at least 60% voting in its favor to pass. That’s because when voters initially approved the Wheeler RETT in 1979, the ballot stated that “City Council cannot appropriate in excess of $100,000 in any single calendar year for the purpose of supporting the visual and performing arts without obtaining the approval of (60) percent of the electors voting at a regular or special election on the same.”
Endorsing the question’s passage already were executive directors of three highly visible Aspen nonprofits — Alan Fletcher of the Aspen Music Festival & School, Jim Horowitz of Jazz Aspen Snowmass and Susan Wrubel of Aspen Film, as well as Cristal Logan on behalf of The Aspen Institute. They all spoke up in support of repurposing the Wheeler RETT.
“We’re eager to assist with the process,” said Fletcher, president and CEO of Aspen Music Festival & School, noting the organization’s “historical interest” in supporting the opera house.
Removing the cap, Horowitz said, will “support the wider arts community in a wider way” and “gives you the flexibility to spend more on certain times and less at other times.”
The Wheeler RETT took effect Jan. 1, 1980, and collections are derived through a 0.5% transfer tax attached to real property sales within city limits.
As the Aspen property market goes, so too does the financial health of the Wheeler RETT coffer. Through June of this year, the Wheeler RETT had generated $4.3 million due to the continued strength of the housing market. The city originally budgeted for $1.5 million in Wheeler RETT collections through the first half of 2021.
In 2020, another whopper year for real estate sales due to the so-called urban exodus, the haul was $9.5 million, according to city finance records. 2019 accounted for $4.4 million in Wheeler RETT collections; 2018 brought in $4.6 million; in 2017 it was $5.2 million; and in 2016 it was $3.3 million, falling shy of 2015 ($5.4 million) and 2014 ($4.5 million).
Since 2000, an average of 69% of the Wheeler’s annual operations have been subsidized by the RETT, according to a presentation Ott gave the council.
The Wheeler’s fund balance now stands at more than $32 million “and represents a level that is essentially five times the average annual expenditure authority,” said Ott in a memo to the City Council.
Repurposing the Wheeler RETT also would include funding the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management plan fund. Councilman Skippy Mesirow urged caution because some of the Red Brick’s current tenants are non-arts organizations; he said he wanted assurances that those tenants wouldn’t face the risk of losing their space if voters approved repurposing the Wheeler RETT.
Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick also would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater.
“This will create time to restructure the purchase agreement between Aspen Film and the City,” Ott’s memo said. “It is my recommendation that Aspen Film would still need to pay the remaining purchase price to obtain ownership, but in terms more favorable to its ability to maintain revenue streams and operate a film theater during the transitional time in the film industry.”
The Wheeler RETT expires at the end of 2039, and the ballot question would apply through that duration.
The decision to push for a November vote comes after a grassroots petition drive aimed at putting a question of similar nature on the ballot didn’t collect the minimum number of 925 signatures of registered Aspen voters. Their question would have proposed a 50-50 split of RETT revenue between the Wheeler and other art uses, while also removing the cap.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen had a busy day Thursday responding to two separate incidents.