Divided Aspen City Council sends Wheeler money question to voters
Coming off a deadlocked vote, council lands on 3-2 decision to ask voters to divert millions from Wheeler Opera House real estate transfer tax revenue for more arts support
After tracking down an Aspen City Council member who was not present at Tuesday’s regular meeting to vote on a controversial ballot question, council voted 3-2 on an ordinance that will ask voters to divert real estate transfer tax revenue dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House.
Council member Skippy Mesirow was reached via phone by City Manager Sara Ott after an hour and a half discussion by his fellow elected officials who were deadlocked 2-2 on a vote to send the question to the ballot.
Mesirow joined the meeting via WebEx in his Aspen apartment after traveling on vacation. The conversation among council was picked up for another 40 minutes, which ended in a swing vote by Mesirow after he asked questions about council members’ positions that they had stated earlier.
He voted despite the objections from two council members, Ward Hauenstein and Rachel Richards, due to his late arrival.
“I feel this is a flawed process with Skippy just coming in at the last minute,” Hauenstein said.
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Richards asked that Mesirow wait and listen to the entire conversation at a later time before making a decision.
“If you are going to weigh in,” she said, “I would really appreciate it if you wait and watch until you see the prior discussion … and I don’t want to have to repeat 10 minutes worth of comments to you online of my concerns and my evaluations.”
The special meeting was called for Tuesday to allow Richards to be at the dais, since she had been on vacation the week prior when the rest of council was discussing whether to send the question to voters.
Richards said she watched council’s Aug. 24 meeting and was prepared to oppose the ballot question for myriad reasons, including that the city’s recent poling results showed that the required 60% of voters will likely not support it.
Prior to Mesirow’s appearance, Councilman John Doyle said a decision to send a question to voters was important enough for all five members to be voting.
“I just feel strongly that Skippy should be here so we can get firm a yes or no,” he said. “I hate having another meeting but he’s part of our board, he should weigh in.”
With Friday’s deadline to submit ballot language to the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, council took a recess to find out Mesirow’s availability.
Richards said the opposing viewpoints among council members on diverting funding from the Wheeler Opera House is not a good signal to voters.
“Great, have a 3-2 vote to put it on the ballot and try to win with that,” she said, arguing more than once on Tuesday that it’s not fully cooked on how the money would be spent, how much would be diverted and what would be left for the historic Wheeler Opera House.
“I think that if council puts together a question and it puts it out there and it fails, it’s council’s failure for putting a failed question on … and I don’t think that reflects well on council,” she said.
Mayor Torre, who voted with Doyle and Mesirow to put the question on the ballot, said the time is now.
“I think that we should be going forward with November and giving our community the opportunity to vote on it,” he said. “This is structurally not working for us and we should fix it and we could fix it by putting it on the ballot and supporting it and getting it over that 60% threshold … and I also think that doesn’t tie our hands for even asking another question next year or the year after, or right now when we have sitting in front of us an opportunity to make progress.”
The ballot question asks that a portion of the Wheeler’s real estate transfer tax revenue be repurposed to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, 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 would allow the city to use it to pay its remaining $2.1 million in outstanding certificates of participation for the Isis Theater, which is in financial peril.
The ballot question also asks that it removes the cap on an annual $100,000 set aside for arts and culture grants to local nonprofits, and opens it up more broadly to the visual and performing arts.
The Wheeler real estate transfer tax was first adopted by voters in 1979 and was specifically pledged as financial support for the Wheeler Opera House, plus the annual $100,000 set aside.
In 2016, voters extended the RETT through 2039 and reaffirmed the 1979 vote that any change in funding would require support of 60% of the electorate.
Currently, the Wheeler Opera House has a fund balance of $40 million.
Hauenstein said he wants to make sure other important community needs, specifically mental health and child care, are adequately funded before asking voters to divert money from the Wheeler real estate transfer tax for more arts support.
Earlier in Tuesday’s council discussion prior to Mesirow’s appearance, Doyle said in the back of his mind if the question failed it could be asked again, but with questions coming from the Wheeler board of directors and other concerns, it was a good idea to step back and evaluate it closer instead of rushing it.
He changed his mind later and voted yes to put it on the ballot after voting against Richards’ earlier motion to deny the ordinance sending it voters.
Hauenstein and Richards voted yes to deny the motion while Torre and Doyle voted no, ending in a 2-2 deadlock.
When posed again to approve the ordinance, Richards and Hauenstein vote no and Mesirow, Torre and Doyle voted yes.
“I see valid arguments for both sides,” Doyle said when pressed by Mesirow on what his position was. “I’m struggling with it because we could put it right back on the ballot again; I like what Torre said about letting the voters decide, we have a smart electorate and I also agree with the points Rachel brought up, not even having had a meeting with the Wheeler board yet. This is a tough one.”
Mesirow leaned toward Torre’s position.
“Let’s do it now and let the feedback of the election be our guide,” he said.
Council spent far less time discussing another ballot question that was approved 4-0 to send to Aspen voters this fall.
Council spent about 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting approving two ordinances and a resolution that sends a land exchange ballot question to the voters.
If approved by voters, it would put a 19-acre conservation easement across Shadow Mountain, preventing future development and guaranteeing public access and recreational opportunities.
The parcel is known as the Pride of Aspen mining claim and if voters approve the land exchange, the city parks department and Pitkin County’s open space program will own it in perpetuity.
By approving the deal with homeowner Bob Olson, who owns 501 W. Hopkins Ave., located next to the Midland Trail, he gets 4,000 square feet of public-right-of-way around his 7,500-square-foot lot.
The additional square footage to Olson’s property would allow better access and more landscaping around the home, along with setbacks that would provide a buffer to the adjacent Midland Trail.
His company, Newport Beach, California-based R.D. Olson Investments II, LLC, bought the 19 acres on Shadow Mountain in 2018 for $1 million for prophylactic purposes to ensure that no one could do or propose anything he might oppose right behind his home.
As part of the land exchange, between 360 square feet and 780 square feet of additional floor area, depending on the proposal and land use code regulations, could be added to the existing 3,450-square-foot home.
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