Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House money diversion not fully baked
Aspen City Council members want more information on what community needs are more pressing than keeping $33M in the bank
Before going to Aspen voters to get their blessing to spend a portion of the real estate transfer tax revenue dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House on other uses, Aspen City Council must have a better understanding of how bad the need is elsewhere in the community.
“I’d like to get all the information in before I dive into cutting up a pie, whether we are going to leave it intact or (spend some of it), so let’s wait and see if we have all the ingredients before we decide how to bake it,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said during a work session Monday.
The Wheeler Opera House fund is flush with cash, with a balance of roughly $33 million, which comes from a 0.5% tax on all real estate transfers in the city.
While the fund is volatile because it relies on a fluctuating real estate market, it has been on the upswing in recent years as more people have moved here.
Council has been discussing for months about how much money should be diverted and where it ought to go.
Identified areas of need that council has zeroed in on include child care, health and human services, storm water and the arts nonprofit community.
Council was briefed earlier this month on the needs of the outdated and failing storm water system that prevents polluted water from reaching the Roaring Fork River, which is in the tens of millions of dollars.
Affordable child care needs were presented to council Monday night, which also would require millions of dollars to add capacity, as there are currently long wait lists for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
Council recognizes that it’s an economic issue because if parents can’t afford child care, they will move out of the area or not participate in the workforce, which is a pinch point for local employers.
Future work sessions with council are being scheduled for health and human services and the arts community to determine their needs.
The real estate transfer 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.
Council has narrowed its options to go to voters, likely in November 2022 when turnout is expected to be high, to two options.
The first would be to dedicate the first $2 million in annual RETT collections to the Wheeler Opera House fund and then allow for additional collections be used for other expanded uses.
Also included in that would be the elimination of the current $100,000 cap on RETT revenue directed toward the nonprofit arts community.
The ballot question would require at least 60% voter approval, per the terms of the previous ballot question.
The second option would be to remove the $100,000 cap on RETT revenue directed toward the nonprofit arts community and would again require an approval vote of at least 60%. Coupled with this, though administratively rather than through the election process, would be for council support of the earned income generated by Wheeler operations to be redirected to other uses outside, according to Pete Strecker, city finance director.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she wants a more definitive dollar amount established for increased grants to nonprofit arts groups.
“If we are going forward with this question, we’re asking all the arts groups to be supporting it, and so I don’t know what that number would be, but I would certainly myself want to see it closer up to that $1 million number,” she said. “I personally would not be getting behind a campaign that lifts arts groups by $200,000 after all this time.”
Different councils over the years have discussed diverting Wheeler RETT funds, but it’s such a political hot potato that the notion has died at the dais more than once.
“This has been a conversation that’s been going on for a really, really, long time and I think it should go to some type of ballot to get the feedback from the community,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “I think it’s a minority of people that say keep all that money in the bank account.”
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Former Aspen Skiing Co. executive and Aspen city councilman Derek Johnson has been released from state prison and is currently residing at a halfway house.