Aspenites to be asked to divert funding source for Wheeler to Red Brick
Ballot question asking to repurpose real estate transfer tax will likely appear on November ballot
Aspen City Council on Tuesday moved forward with an ordinance that places a question on the ballot asking voters to repurpose the Wheeler Opera House real estate transfer tax so that more of its revenue benefits the Red Brick Center for the Arts and the performing arts.
Council during its regular meeting approved the ordinance on first reading, with a public hearing scheduled Aug. 24 for final approval.
However, City Manager Sara Ott said she might ask council to continue that second reading hearing until Aug. 31 to ensure enough time to get adequate polling of registered voters.
The polling, conducted by Salt Lake City-based FrederickPolls, is aimed at gauging public opinion about whether such a question would be supported.
FrederickPolls will be calling and texting registered voters in the coming days and weeks until a statistically derived number is reached, which is a small sampling of the roughly 6,500 active voters in Aspen.
The ordinance addresses three focus areas that council expressed desire for at its Aug. 2 work session, which include ensuring continued funding to meet the needs of the Wheeler Opera House; removing the cap for grants for arts and culture; and authorizing the Red Brick Center for the Arts in its current programming efforts to be funded by the RETT revenue source.
Council in recent months had been considering other uses for the RETT, which requires 60% of voters’ approval.
Increased child care, storm water infrastructure, health and human services and the arts nonprofit community were some of the areas considered for additional funding.
If approved by council later this month, the ordinance asking to channel some of the money to the Red Brick and visual and performing arts in the community will be decided by voters in the Nov. 2 election.
Council members’ desire to put the question to voters this fall as opposed to future years as they had discussed earlier this year comes on the heels of a group unsuccessfully trying to collect enough signatures for a petition to put a question on the ballot that would’ve asked for a 50-50 split of RETT funds between the Wheeler and other art uses.
The Wheeler RETT fund is at about $40 million and is fueled by a 0.5% tax on real estate transactions in the city.
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.
City officials also upped the arts grants by $300,000 annually a few years ago, which comes out of earned revenue generated by Wheeler operations.
This fall’s question would remove the $100,000 cap and include funding the Red Brick, which currently is supported by the city’s general fund and asset management plan fund.
Eliminating the general fund as a source of support for the Red Brick also would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater.
Aspen Film is responsible for paying that debt per a 2007 agreement with the city as part of its path to ownership.
But the local nonprofit is behind in back rent to the city and other expenses to the tune of $331,000 due to the pandemic and changes in the movie industry.
“This ballot question does not specifically authorize use of the Wheeler real estate transfer tax to pay the debt on the Isis,” Ott said. “What it does in practicality though is make room in the general fund to pay that debt by allowing the Red Brick Center for the Arts subsidy to come from the Wheeler real estate transfer tax instead of the general fund.”
Mayor Torre thanked city staff for quickly getting a ballot question formulated that is clear and concise.
“This was put into high gear, and I really appreciate all the staff time and energy to get this in front of us,” he said. “Not only that but also navigating the rapids that were going on around this question. … This is of very high interest to the community, and I can tell you what I see before me right now is not only necessarily a great start but this may be the cleanest language that we can use for this question.”
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