Aspen City Council spins its wheels on the Wheeler money question
Elected officials delay decision to take real estate transfer tax repurposing question to Aspen voters
Aspen City Council on Tuesday kicked the can into next week on deciding whether to send a question to voters this fall asking them to repurpose future real estate transfer tax revenue earmarked for the historic Wheeler Opera House, which currently has a fund balance of $40 million.
Council was considering approving an ordinance during its regular meeting but with Councilwoman Rachel Richards absent, opposing viewpoints among board members and poling results showing that the required 60% of Aspen voters may not support it, elected officials decided to continue the public hearing until Aug. 31.
Survey results from polling 200 registered Aspen voters in the past two weeks, which represents 4.5% of the electorate, indicate that frequent voters typically vote more conservative when it comes to tax questions.
“This suggests that if turnout is small and the electorate becomes as informed before voting as they did in this poll exercise, then the ballot is more likely than not to fail the 60% threshold,” said Keith Fredricks of Salt Lake City-based FrederickPolls, the polling firm hired by the city.
The Wheeler real estate transfer tax was first adopted by voters in 1979 and was specifically pledged as financial support for the Wheeler Opera House, plus an annual set aside of $100,000 for arts and culture grants.
In 2016, voters extended the RETT through 2039.
City officials also upped the arts grants by $300,000 annually several years ago, which comes out of earned revenue generated by Wheeler operations.
This fall’s question would remove the $100,000 cap and allow for more funding for the visual and performing arts.
Council members noted that not one member of any of the valley’s nonprofit arts organizations attended Tuesday’s meeting.
“I see nobody here tonight from the arts community saying how important this is, I see ambivalence at best,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who voiced his support for money to be diverted toward mental health, suicide prevention and child care.
Councilman Skippy Mesirow said he’ll be interested to see how he and his colleagues’ opinions change over the next week.
“If we are a proxy for the community and for recognition that this could move into other funds brings us together or splits us apart would probably give us indication of what would happen over an additional year (to pose to the) electorate,” he said. “The second thing is the shocking absence of the arts community in this room right now. I’m amazed. It will be interesting to see if anyone shows up next time.”
The proposed ballot question also asks that a portion of the Wheeler’s real estate transfer tax revenue be repurposed to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management plan fund.
Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater.
Aspen Film is responsible for paying that debt per a 2007 agreement with the city as part of its path to ownership.
But the local nonprofit is behind in back rent to the city and other expenses to the tune of $331,000 due to the pandemic and changes in the movie industry.
“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,” wrote City Manager Sara Ott in a memo to council. “This approach would preclude non-arts use in the space during the time the city retains ownership of the property. It also would ensure any future acquisition revenues by Aspen Film would first go to benefit the Wheeler Opera House Fund, then to the general fund.”
Mayor Torre said on Tuesday that he is supportive of the question going to voters this fall.
“This is what we wanted to do with this. It keeps it in the arts, it keeps it in the Wheeler, it takes care of our primary goals and I think we do have other funding sources for the good work that we need to be doing in other areas,” he said. “I also don’t think this limits us and I am not daunted by a poll or the talk that’s going on right now of a fear of failure. That doesn’t sway me. I think we can carry this to the finish line, but more than anything it’s a chance for the public to vote on it.”
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