Aspen council places three items on November ballot
September 5, 2012
ASPEN – With little discussion among its members and virtually no comments from the public, the Aspen City Council on Tuesday officially placed three items on the Nov. 6 ballot.
One, arguably the most controversial, is a referendum question that asks voters whether the city should continue with a hydroelectric project on Castle Creek. A second seeks to increase the local sales tax by 0.3 percent to give the Aspen School District another funding source.
The third would continue the city’s franchise agreement with SourceGas Distribution LLC, the local natural-gas provider, for another 20 years.
All three ballot resolutions met with unanimous approval from the four councilmen and Mayor Mick Ireland. The city clerk is required to submit all of the items to the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office on Friday.
With regard to the hydroelectric plant, the city’s voters will be asked the following “advisory” question: “Shall the city of Aspen complete the hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek, subject to local stream health monitoring and applicable government regulations, to replace coal-fired energy with renewable energy?” The council and city staff agreed to the ballot language at an Aug. 28 work session, and no members of the audience spoke up to oppose it.
So far, the city has spent about $7 million on the hydroelectric project, which aims to take a portion of the water flowing from Castle and Maroon creeks to generate enough power to cover 8 percent of the city electric utility’s needs. In 2007, when voters approved a bond-issue referendum that set the hydroelectric project into motion, the project cost was estimated at $6.2 million. Cost overruns have resulted in a revised estimate of $10.5 million to complete the plant.
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A petition drive led by local residents Ward Hauenstein and Maurice Emmer early this year set off a chain of events leading to the referendum question. The petition sought to overturn the council’s December rezoning decision allowing public land off Power Plant Road to be used for the plant. The proposed plant has drawn fierce opposition from some Castle Creek property owners as well as the nonprofit group American Rivers.
On Tuesday, Ireland spoke of how the hydroelectric plant would help the city’s electric utility meet renewable-energy goals by replacing its dependence on the amount of coal-fired power it purchases from a Nebraska supplier.
Ireland asked Dave Hornbacher, city utilities director, whether hydroelectric power will prove to be cheaper in the long run than energy derived through coal, wind and solar sources.
“Yes,” Hornbacher replied to all three questions.
Ireland pointed out that the Castle Creek hydroelectric plant would enable Aspen to become completely free of the nation’s power grid in the event of its widespread failure.
“In the 1960s, that actually happened,” he said. “This community met its power needs during a cold fall because we were not dependent on the grid. And not long ago, 10 percent of the world’s population lost electric power because the grid failed in India.”
The Castle Creek hydroelectric plant would bring Aspen’s electric utility “a big step closer” to being the first U.S. municipal utility that relies completely upon renewable power sources, Ireland said.
On the sales tax question, the council modified ballot language its members agreed on last week. The measure would increase the Aspen sales tax rate by 0.3 percent, a slight decrease from the 0.35 percent mentioned over the past few months.
The tax would expire in four years, with a seven-member independent, appointed board overseeing its distribution. Those board members were named during Tuesday’s meeting. They are attorney Jeanne C. Doremus, real estate executive Ernie Fyrwald, former Aspen Education Foundation interim director Robin Hamill, former school board member Laura Kornasiewicz, accountant Susan Marolt, landscape architect Sarah Chase Shaw and financial consultant Peter Van Domelen.
The tax increase would raise an estimated $1.75 million annually for the financially challenged school district, allowing it to maintain its current program and staffing levels in the face of state budget cuts to education.
Since early this year, the Aspen Education Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the district, has been pushing for either the city or Pitkin County to place the item on the fall ballot. The Board of County Commissioners declined, setting up the city’s decision.