Aspen council mulls ballot questions |

Aspen council mulls ballot questions

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen voters likely will vote in November on retaining a tax and bonding structure to pay for future affordable-housing projects, but a related tax question that funds both affordable housing and day care will not go before local voters until May 2009.

The City Council agreed at a work session Tuesday that the two tax questions do not need to be put to voters on the same ballot, and that companion tax questions regarding day-care funding and affordable housing should be kept together.

The city is considering renewal of a 1 percent real estate transfer tax ” known as the RETT ” which is the largest funding mechanism for affordable housing, and which expires in 2024, as well as a 0.45 percent sale tax that feeds money to area day-care providers as well as to the housing fund, which expires even sooner.

The taxes are critical parts of the city’s long-term strategies for dealing with a crushing affordable-housing crisis.

The extensions are needed, said City Manager Steve Barwick, at least in part because the city typically issues bonds for 20-year to 30-year terms. The council has been contemplating a bond question of anywhere from $75 million to $93 million to finish the Burlingame affordable housing project, according to recent news reports. And since the taxes are the mechanisms by which the bonds are paid off and the debt retired, they must be in effect at least as long as the bonds and preferably longer, which would not be true without the extensions.

All members of the City Council, and all members of the public who spoke at the work session, agreed that the RETT is vital to continuing the housing program and should be renewed.

It also was generally agreed that the day care/housing sales tax should be renewed, though there was some disagreement about how that renewal should take place. Some city staffers had suggested that the council might want to separate the two parts, joining the housing portion of the sales tax with a ballot question concerning renewal of the RETT and with a request for authority to issue bonds to build more housing. The exact amount of the bond is not yet determined.

But of after hearing from representatives of the Kids First day-care clearinghouse and the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority board, which have been discussing how to deal with the sales tax renewal issue, the council opted to keep the housing/day-care tax as it has been historically, as one unified ballot question to be put to the voters next May.

Mayor Mick Ireland noted that, in his conversations with constituents, two issues nearly always come up together when people talk of leaving the area ” the cost of housing, and the difficulty in finding day care for young children.

“We are struggling to maintain a core of children in the community,” he said.

Council member Dwayne Romero, seconding Ireland’s remarks, said of the combined tax, “We absolutely have to have it. We have to extend it.”

Shirley Ritter of Kids First suggested the May election, noting that the last time it was renewed was in a spring election and that setting it for the spring “gives us a little more time” to mount a campaign in support of the extension.

As for the RETT and the bond, the council directed staff to keep working on the numbers to determine how much of a bond can be leveraged by the RETT alone.

The housing/day-care tax receipts have been used to supplement the RETT income in the past, allowing the city to borrow greater amounts of money. But with the election next May, noted Barwick, the sale tax proceeds cannot legally be counted on if the bonds are issued in the fall, since the tax will not have been extended yet.

The council also generally agreed that it will continue talking with potential partners in future affordable housing projects, including the Aspen Valley Hospital District, the Aspen School District, the Aspen Music Festival and School and perhaps others. Although some on the council were concerned about using city tax money to help create housing for non-municipal needs, the council was told that all discussions so far had called on the “partners” to pay their own way in building or otherwise procuring housing.

Specifically, the council has opened talks with the Aspen Music School about possibly expanding the existing Marolt seasonal housing complex onto city-owned land at 488 Castle Creek Drive, right next to Marolt.

Council members also were told by Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko that the district is actively considering the idea of putting its own bond question on the November ballot, to raise money to build housing on its own. She said a recent poll conducted among district voters indicated support for such a bond issue.

At Aspen Valley Hospital, CEO Dave Ressler said a survey showed that 100 employees now living downvalley are desperate to get homes closer to their jobs, but cannot afford to buy on the free market. He said the hospital currently has a 50 percent turnover rate among new hires, due largely to housing problems, and that the 44 employee apartments the hospital owns are not enough to meet the need.