Aspen electeds make historic vote for $6M COVID-19 emergency relief, stimulus package

Aspen City Hall.
Aspen Times file photo

City of Aspen COVID-19 emergency relief and economic stimulus package as proposed:

• $300,000 from the general fund released to Pitkin County to provide financial relief to city of Aspen residents in the areas of housing, utility, food and childcare assistance under the existing county’s qualification’s structure for relief.

$3 million from the city’s general fund for:

• Immediate economic relief disbursement through the Aspen Community Foundation

• Distribution to Aspen area serving nonprofits that provide legal aid and mental health services

• Community at-large COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment

• Rent assistance and loans to stabilize businesses and nonprofits, including providing for a small business loan/stabilization program

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

$1.5 million from the city’s Housing Development Fund for:

• Rent and mortgage assistance for deed-restricted housing units as qualified through Pitkin County Human Services

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

$1 million from the city’s Aspen Kids First Fund for:

• Additional child care financial aid

• Retaining qualified child care providers and staff in the community.

• Additional communication and temporary city staffing needs to implement adopted outcomes.

In a historic and unprecedented move, Aspen City Council on Thursday initially appropriated $6 million in emergency relief and an economic stimulus package from Aspen to Parachute for local residents, workers in the valley and area businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Council, during a special meeting, approved on first reading an emergency ordinance that earmarks money coming out of the city’s housing development fund, the Kids’ First child care fund and the general fund.

Council stopped short of approving an interfund advance from the Wheeler Opera House Fund to the city’s general fund because the dollar amount changed after a suggestion by Councilwoman Rachel Richards to increase it by $1 million.

Council originally had a $5 million package in mind but Richards got a majority of her colleagues to tentatively agree to $6 million. That would change the borrowing amount from the Wheeler from $2.5 million to $3.5 million. A final vote is expected Tuesday.

“I think the (number is too low) to accomplish all the things we had hoped to accomplish,” Richards said.

Mayor Torre agreed.

“I’m supportive of it at this time,” he said. “I want to make sure that we are putting both feet down firmly here.”

Council also passed a resolution that approves a multi-pronged objectives and outcomes document that centers around increasing the economic security for vulnerable people by securing shelter, food, utilities, health care, child care and transportation, as well as working proactively to minimize further economic disruption and actively encourage recovery.

The money will cover everything from rent and mortgage relief for local workers and residents to child care subsidies for working families to possible bridge loans or grants to Aspen businesses, along with costs associated with disease testing and personal protective equipment for health care workers.

Council last month approved $200,000 that went into Pitkin County’s relief fund, which began with $1.3 million and has seen over 1,200 applicants.

The city’s relief fund will be funded with $1.5 million from the housing development fund, and $1 million from the Kids First child care fund; both have reserves to cover the expenditures, according to city officials.

Because the general fund doesn’t have sufficient fund balances, Council is planning to borrow from the Wheeler Opera House fund, which has roughly $33 million in it and is funded by real estate transfer taxes.

It will have to be paid back over 10 years at an interest rate between 0.3% and 0.62%.

Torre sent a letter this week to Gov. Jared Polis, as well as to Colorado representatives in the state house, Congress and the U.S. Senate, urging the governor to fairly distribute federal stimulus money and not forget rural mountain communities.

The letter states that the city wants to ensure local governments are reimbursed for all COVID-19 related expenses, including financial assistance.

“As we engage and collaborate with surrounding Western Slope counties, the city of Aspen looks forward to engaging with Governor Polis with a clear understanding on how the equitable distribution of funds from the federal stimulus package will trickle down to our cities and counties,” he wrote. “Similar to the effort to put checks in the hands of every American, consider allowing the locally elected governing body to put that money to use according to each city’s needs and priorities based on population.”

The third phase of the federal stimulus package, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), provides for $150 billion in aid to states and local governments.

It’s estimated that Colorado will receive $2.2 billion, but only municipal governments with populations over 500,000 receive payment directly from the federal government.

It’s up to the governor’s office on how dole out the remaining funds.

“Without a clear understanding of what financial aid may be coming from the state of Colorado, it is imperative that we exercise our fiduciary responsibility by holding back adequate financial reserves to maintain essential services in the future,” wrote City Manager Sara Ott in a memo to Council in advance of its vote Thursday.

She elaborated more in an interview Wednesday.

“There’s no guarantee that small communities will get money,” she said. “We hope the state finds a fair way that the Western Slope doesn’t lose out to the Front Range.

“I’m really concerned,” she added. “Every member of the community should care about this.”

The city is embarking on the economic relief package as the municipal government braces for an estimated revenue shortfall of nearly $13 million in lodging and sales tax revenues this year.

That’s based off a projected reduction of $277 million in the sales and lodging tax base as a result of public health orders that closed all non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay at home in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, who’s based in Vail and represents District 5, which includes Pitkin County, said she sent her own letter to Gov. Polis urging that he prioritize federal funding for mountain towns and rural communities because of the abrupt economic hit they took when ski areas were shut down starting March 15, and other neighboring municipalities that don’t have robust budgets to weather the crisis.

“I think ‘hey we are over here’ is very important now because the mountain West and rural Colorado doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of economic relief,” she said Thursday. “I think Aspen putting up its own money is a testament. … Bravo to them.”

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