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Aspen officials zero in ballot question options to divert Wheeler Opera House funding

Other community needs may drive voters and Aspen City Council members to repurpose real estate transfer tax that supports the historic opera house

Mike Schultheis, general superintendent of Summit Sealants and Restoration, points out the areas replaced on the arches at the top of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen City Council on Monday narrowed it down to two possible options for voters to consider diverting some level of funding away from a cash-flush Wheeler Opera House fund and toward other community needs.

The majority of council members during their work session opted for a possible ballot question asking voters to repurpose any future revenue above $2 million from the dedicated Wheeler Real Estate Transfer Tax for other uses.

The second option that council wants staff to investigate further is to ask voters if they want to maintain the 0.5% RETT and increase the amount of money available for arts grants.



With that option, earned revenue from the Wheeler’s box office sales, theater rental, tenant rent and other money streams would pay for additional community needs.

The RETT 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 grants.




In 2016, voters extended the RETT through 2039.

The Wheeler’s current arts grant program provides $400,000 of annual funding to service providers and institutions, of which $100,000 comes from RETT proceeds. The remaining $300,000 comes from earned revenue from Wheeler Opera House operations.

By asking voters to increase the amount of grants to arts and culture organizations without dipping into the future RETT income seems the most simple and in line with the original intent of the ballot language, Councilwoman Rachel Richards said.

“I want to take a very, very conservative approach,” she said. “It just tracks well for me, and it’s simpler than everything else that I would try to explain to people.”

Councilwoman Ann Mullins agreed that it’s most in line with the original intent of voters, but she is willing to look at redirecting RETT funds over $2 million collected each year.

Mayor Torre said the option of continuing to collect the 0.5% RETT is intriguing, but he wants more information on what the dollar amounts would translate to for both increased support for the arts and other community needs.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said holding onto all of what the 0.5% RETT generates doesn’t earmark enough money available to other needs in the community.

“That would be a first before I can decide on how much to try to redirect for other uses and try to quantify what the needs are and the benefit to the community,” he said. “I just think there are so many needs and there is so much in this fund that’s there no conceivable use entirely for the Wheeler.”

Some of those other needs are mental health initiatives through health and human services, replacing aging and failing storm water pipes that lead directly to the Roaring Fork River, the lack of affordable child care and more support to the arts and culture organizations, which are significant drivers of the local economy.

City Manager Sara Ott said council should get a full presentation on each of those areas to understand the needs before moving forward on asking voters to repurpose new RETT revenue.

Council members and staff agreed that a major community outreach plan would have to ensue prior to a ballot question.

Council is considering going to the voters either this fall or in November 2022 as the Wheeler fund continues to grow and other priorities are facing the community.

Currently, the Wheeler fund balance is holding more than $32 million, which is five times the average annual expenditure authority of the operation.

The RETT has generated $50 million for the Wheeler in the past 11 years, with $4.6 million as a median amount collected over the same period, according to City Finance Director Pete Strecker.

The 10-year outlook for Wheeler revenue, which includes the RETT and operating income, is projected at $68.4 million.

For the same time period, it’s expected that $61.2 million will flow out of the Wheeler fund when considering operations, transfers and capital needs for the historic, city-owned building, Strecker said.

Prior to considering different repurposing options for future Wheeler funds, council members told staff last month they wanted to be as conservative as possible in keeping high enough reserve funds to support the building and its cultural programming.

That changed the city’s financial policy for the Wheeler fund to increase the targeted reserve level to approximately 200%, or $8 million of the operating subsidy.

Staff will come back to council in the near future to present the pros and cons on the two options for redirecting Wheeler revenue for other community purposes.

csackariason@aspentimes.com


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