Aspen officials support open space, parks tax reauthorization

City of Aspen likely to ask voters next fall to re-up the 0.5% sales tax that funds recreational facilities, trails and open space acquisitions

Aspen City Council on Monday expressed support for Parks and Open Space officials to pursue asking voters in November 2022 to reauthorize an existing 0.5% sales tax.

The tax, initially approved by voters in 2000, sunsets in 2025, so city officials want to make sure they give themselves enough time in case the reauthorization fails at the polls next fall and also capitalize on expected high voter turnout during a mid-term election.

Over the past two decades, the 0.5% sales tax has supported many large open space acquisitions, multi-use trail projects, recreation facilities and parks.

Some of those community assets are the Aspen Recreation Center, Smuggler Open Space, the Tiehack Bridge, Sky Mountain Park and the Cemetery Lane trail and bridge, to name a few.

Austin Weiss, director of parks and recreation, said prior to 63% of voters passing what is referred to as the “half cent” tax, city officials had a vision on what could be.

“At that time, a lot of time and energy went into developing an ensemble of projects in an effort to looking into the future,” he told council during its work session Monday. “There were a number of projects that that were visionary. … Smuggler Mountain Open Space, which we managed to preserved back in 2005, that really stands out as one of our shining accomplishments.”

The half-cent tax augments a 1% sales tax that was originally passed by voters in 1970 that funds the city’s parks and open space program.

The original 1% sales tax ballot language included the acquisitions of real property, including open space and for the expenses related to the “expenditures necessary to protect such property …” according to Matt Kuhn, director of parks and open space.

He and Weiss noted that the 0.5% is necessary for the ongoing maintenance needs of the numerous facilities the city has built over the past 20 years.

The Aspen Recreation Center, the golf and Nordic pro shop and the Aspen Ice Garden are going to see significant maintenance needs in the future, Weiss said.

Staff has been working with the city’s open space and trails board and the finance department to solidify upcoming capital projects and potential land acquisitions for the next 10 years to understand anticipated expenditures.

There are several significant capital projects that the 0.5% sales tax could pay for, including an expanded recreation center and improved fitness amenities, as well as a needed remodel of the Aspen Ice Garden.

Without a reauthorization of the half cent, the 1% sales tax language revised by voters in 1990 would preclude funding, and consideration of these projects would likely fall within the general fund, or other funding mechanisms, according to Kuhn and Weiss.

Potential future projects that would be paid for with the 0.5% sales tax could be the pedestrian mall renovation, the Lift One corridor and park, and housing for ranch workers at the city-owned Cozy Point.

Connecting the Brush Creek and Ride and the Aspen Business Center via trail, as well as to the Rio Grande Trail is another goal in future years for the city and Pitkin County.

In addition to capital projects, several potential open space parcels remain priorities for acquisition, and while the 0.5% sales tax is not the sole source of funding for land purchases without its reauthorization, large acquisitions may be hindered by the city’s borrowing limits that would be tied to the 1% sales tax, Weiss and Kuhn said.

Council directed them to continue their analysis of their departments’ operational needs, the community’s needs and future recreational programs.

“You’ve got a lot of support up here at the council table and I think you are also going to see that the community is going to turn out for this, as well,” Mayor Torre said. “It’s a high priority for our community, our parks and recreation and open space and I think it will continue that way.”