Aspen voters to be asked to renew open space sales tax |

Aspen voters to be asked to renew open space sales tax

Aspen City Council supportive of ballot question seeking to renew and make 0.5% sales tax a permanent revenue source for parks and open space

Wagner Park bustling on a summer afternoon on Monday, July 20, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Times archive photo

Aspen voters will decide in November whether to renew a 0.5% sales tax dedicated to open space and make it a permanent revenue stream for the city’s parks department.

Voters first approved the sales tax in 2000, and it is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2025.

City officials expressed a desire during Aspen City Council’s Monday work session to ask the question this fall so that if it fails, there are future elections to go back to voters.

But based on polling that was done in June, it doesn’t appear that the question will be defeated but instead will pass with flying colors.

According to the survey results of 257 respondents, Aspen voters are extremely supportive of continuing the sales tax; 86% said they would vote to continue the tax permanently, according to Keith Frederick, founder of FredrickPolls, a Utah-based polling firm that the city hired.

“What I am hearing is we’re listening to the polling that you’ve done, it looks favorable for a permanent extension,” said Mayor Torre, who prior to his comment challenged staff to answer questions that he would expect from the public about the city having so much money and it continuing to build facilities that require ongoing maintenance.

Matt Kuhn, parks and open space director, said the half-cent tax is needed to cover some big-ticket items like bridge replacements in the coming years.

Austin Weiss, the city’s director of parks and recreation, added that as the city continues to build affordable housing, parks infrastructure must be maintained.

Their answers were sufficient for Torre and his colleagues.

“I’m supportive, don’t get me wrong, but part of our job is to kind of hammer you a little bit so that other people don’t do it at a later time,” Torre said.

When the tax was established in 2000, 63% of Aspen voters supported it, according to Weiss and Kuhn.

This year the parks and open space department is projected to generate $14 million in revenue, which is predominately from sales taxes.

The 0.5% sales tax provides about one-third of the parks and open space revenue, which is used for operational and capital expenses.

When it was passed, voters also allowed an additional $38 million in debt bonding authority to build infrastructure, trails and facilities. That debt will be paid off by 2025, Kuhn said.

Unique to the 0.5% sales tax is that it allows for additional recreation uses and states, “For the purpose of buying, improving and maintaining trail, recreational and open space properties, and ancillary facilities,” according to Weiss and Kuhn.

That has allowed for the Aspen Recreation Center to be built, and it has supported incidental operation and maintenance expenses for golf and recreation programs.

The parks and open space program also is funded by a 1% sales tax that was originally passed by voters in 1970, with 76% in support.

The original 1% sales tax allowed for the acquisition of real property, including open space and for the expenses related to the “expenditures necessary to protect such property,” reads the ballot language that was provided to council on Monday.

Twenty years later, Aspen voters revised the tax to be limited for parks, trails and open space uses.

“If the half penny went away, that one penny would not be allowed in usage to repair the ARC or repair the golf course or repair the bridge or other things that are facility oriented,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards. “So the tennis courts or the pickleball courts and those sorts of things would have to then be funded from the general fund and then competing with failed stormwater drainage pipes or police salaries.”

Parks and open space officials told council the program needs financial resources to maintain the facilities that have been built and developed in the past 22 years, along with the stewardship for the public lands that were bought with revenue from the 0.5% sales tax.

That’s the main argument behind asking voters to make the tax a permanent revenue source instead of a 25-year renewal cycle.

“The story we want to tell tonight is how important the existence of the half-cent is for the ongoing maintenance of everything that we provide in the community here,” Weiss said.

There are several large capital projects planned for the next decade that could be potentially funded by the 0.5% tax, including an expanded recreation center and improved fitness amenities, as well as a remodel of the Aspen Ice Garden.

Richards said she’d like to see an outdoor pool at the ARC, which was once a plan that a previous council abandoned.

Having learned that other entities and governments in the valley do not plan to pose any tax questions this fall, city officials believe the Nov. 8 election is the best opportunity for the success of the question.

“The community support is expressed in the polling, and the value of the parks and open space to the well-being and mental health of our community for me makes it two thumbs up,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein.