Citizen group seeking ballot question to divert Wheeler money falls short on signatures
The necessary 925 signatures for a citizen petition to get a measure on the November ballot could not be reached by a group wanting to divert real estate transfer tax revenue for arts, district theater
A group of residents failed to meet the deadline on Friday to submit 925 signatures from registered Aspen voters to place a question on the November ballot asking to re-appropriate a portion of revenues from the real estate transfer tax that goes to the Wheeler Opera House.
Kurt Hall, a member of the group, which started their effort at the beginning of the week, said he didn’t have a final count of signatures on Friday because there were several individuals collecting and a tally hadn’t been done.
“We are going to keep going and when we get to 925 we will go in front of (Aspen City Council) and hope they will take it as an endorsement,” Hall said. “Even though we didn’t make the deadline, the pressure is going to build and our cause and approach and goal will be spread throughout the community.
“This isn’t over; it’s only begun.”
They are seeking to split the revenue so that half goes to the Wheeler and half goes to art uses.
The question also was seeking to remove the existing cap of $100,000 in Wheeler real estate tax (WRETT) revenues being spent on cultural, arts and music organizations in the valley.
That was what a majority of voters approved, plus all WRETT going to the Wheeler, in 1979.
In 2016, voters extended the WRETT to 2039.
The city could put its own measure on the November ballot and has until Sept. 3 to do so, but council members earlier this year indicated they were not ready to put a question to voters about diverting future Wheeler money and preferred the fall 2022 election.
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.
Mayor Torre said this week that the group seeking to split the revenue 50-50 has not done the financial modeling that the city is in the process of doing to ensure that enough money goes to the historic Wheeler.
Currently, the fund has just short of $40 million.
He also said the group has misrepresented that its members have tried to work collaboratively with city officials.
“They pivoted and came in with ballot language without any financial models,” Torre said. “They didn’t join in any dialogue … the way they went about it was not collaborative.”
City Clerk Nicole Henning accepted the group’s petition on Monday, after rejecting a previous one that would’ve asked voters to remove the $100,000 cap and approve a $10 million grant to the Aspen School District to upgrade and renovate the 550-seat Aspen District Theater and 150-seat black box space.
The language of the petition is not a legislative matter, Henning concluded, stating in a letter that a grant of funds is an administrative act of a government entity.
While the group wants a significant amount of money to renovate the district theater, the additional freed-up money also could fund dozens of local arts and cultural nonprofits and organizations, which would be decided through a grant process by the city.
The WRETT, a 0.5% tax on all real estate transfers in the city, averages between $2 million and $4 million a year, although that figure was higher in 2020 and will likely be in 2021 as Aspen continues to see record real estate sales.
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