Basalt council reverses direction on new town hall |

Basalt council reverses direction on new town hall

Funding will be sought for Midland Avenue improvements instead

Flowers bloom around Basalt Town Hall on a warm summer day on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The Basalt Town Council decided Tuesday night not to pursue a new town hall. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Basalt Town Council reversed direction Tuesday night on asking voters to fund a new multi-million-dollar town hall.

The council decided unanimously 6-0 to seek funding for improvements to Midland Avenue in the downtown core rather than a town hall. The change of heart came over the prior eight days.

At a work session on Aug. 16, the council voted 6-1 in a nonbinding straw poll to ask voters in the November election to approve funding for the town hall, affordable housing and “green initiatives.”

But in a work session Monday night, the council indicated in a new straw poll they wanted to substitute the Midland Avenue improvements for the new town hall. They will still seek funding for affordable housing and green initiatives.

Mayor Bill Kane said at Monday’s work session that the council majority had second thoughts since the Aug. 16 meeting.

“While we concluded the (Aug. 16) work session on a seemingly definitive note, I think there was a real sensation of sort of unsettledness about where we were going with the ballot language,” Kane said.

He held individual discussions with council members during the week between work sessions as well as with town manager Ryan Mahoney and determined there was a willingness to change direction.

Councilwoman Elyse Hottel was the only member who voted on Aug. 16 to pursue the Midland Avenue improvements. She said it would be wise to heed the advice of town residents who attended an open house on Aug. 4. At that meeting, residents were given chips to vote for their top three priority projects. Residents favored affordable housing, green initiatives and the Midland Avenue streetscape improvements.

That was slightly at odds with a recommendation from an appointed Capital Needs Committee, which advised the council to go with a town hall rather than the Midland improvements.

A woman crosses Midland Avenue in Downtown Basalt on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

At its Aug. 16 work session, the council majority’s support for pursuing town hall was solid. But Kane indicated council members received a significant amount of feedback about its direction and changed course.

“I’m obviously pretty pleased that we moved in this direction,” Hottel said at Monday’s work session. She later added, “I think ultimately listening to the public is worthwhile.”

Councilman Glenn Drummond acknowledged he had favored pursuing a new town hall, as the committee recommended. But, it’s important that town officials are on the same page if they want to convince voters to approve funding. Therefore, he said, he was willing to change his support to the Midland Avenue streetscape.

“If this is what everybody’s comfortable with, I’m totally on board with it,” Drummond said.

The Midland Avenue streetscape improvements are estimated to cost $11.5 million. It would include features to be more pedestrian and bicycling friendly as well as beautification and parking improvements. There will also be extensive replacement of infrastructure below ground. Mahoney said the project cost would be difficult to pinpoint before the condition of the utilities is assessed.

“That infrastructure in the ground is between 60 and 80 years old,” the town manager said.

The town government also wants to raise about $6 million for affordable housing projects and roughly $2 million for green initiatives. The affordable housing and green initiatives haven’t been defined yet.

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said $6 million obviously won’t solve the affordable housing shortage in Basalt but it will “dent it.” The shortage is affecting every sector of the economy — child care centers cannot find teachers, some restaurants can’t avoid slow service due to worker shortages and some retail operations are closing on some days of the week because of lack of staffing, he said.

“I don’t think it’s magically going to get any better,” he said. That justifies putting money into efforts now, he said.

The town will seek voter approval for funding in November. Two bonds will be paid off in the next two years. The town will ask voters to keep the existing property tax in place so that new bonds can be issued for the latest projects. If voters approve, the extended property tax would be in place for 25 years.

The town’s wish list of projects totals $19.5 million. The proposed bonds would produce about $18 million in revenues. The proposal is to use federal funds, grants and town reserves to generate additional revenues along with an extended property tax.

The council voted 6-0 Tuesday night to approve wording for the Nov. 2 ballot question. Councilman Bill Infante wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting but indicated in the Monday work session he agreed with the new direction.

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