Group circulating petition to put Wheeler money on fall ballot

With nearly $40 million in its coffers from real estate transfer tax revenue, group wants to divert half of new money to different uses

A group of Aspen residents are collecting signatures this week in an effort to put a citizen initiative on the fall ballot that would ask voters to approve reappropriating real estate transfer tax revenue so that half goes to the Wheeler Opera House and the other half goes to art uses.

The ballot question, which would have to be approved by 60% of Aspen voters, also would seek to remove the existing cap of $100,000 in Wheeler real estate tax revenue being spent on cultural, arts and music organizations in the valley.

Per the city’s home rule charter, the group has to collect 925 signatures from Aspen registered voters by Friday to meet the county’s Sept. 3 deadline for the Nov. 2 election, according to City Clerk Nicole Henning.

The group’s representatives — Raifie Bass, Kurt Hall and Ken Ramberg — said they are up to the task.

They also said Monday they have been working with Aspen City Council members and City Manager Sara Ott in recent weeks to formulate the wording of a potential ballot question, but they ended up in a stalemate as they did not get support from officials.

“We were trying to do this collaboratively with City Council, and we really tried to work behind the scenes,” Hall said.

Henning accepted their petition Monday, after rejecting a previous one that would have 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 to Bass and Hall that a grant of funds is an administrative act of a government entity.

A similar effort by a group of parents was made three years ago to repurpose some of the Wheeler RETT for the district theater, but it fell by the wayside due to a lack of city support and timing for a question on the November 2018 ballot.

“We’ve been at this a long time,” Bass said Monday, adding three proposals for the latest effort were floated by officials and rejected. “We are accused of rushing this, but we’ve been at this for a while.”

The current balance of the Wheeler RETT fund is $39.3 million and growing as the real estate boom continues in Aspen.

“We are concerned that money is being built up and not put to use for the community,” Ramberg said.

The RETT, a 0.5% tax on all real estate transfers in the city, was first adopted by voters in 1979 and was specifically pledged as financial support for the Wheeler Opera House, plus an annual amount set aside of $100,000 for arts grants.

City officials upped the arts grants by $300,000 annually a few years ago, which comes out of earned revenue generated by Wheeler operations.

In 2016, voters extended the RETT through 2039.

The tax revenue averages between $2 million and $4 million a year, although that figure was higher in 2020 and will likely be in 2021 as the urban exodus to here keeps going.

The group wants Aspen voters to free up future revenue while keeping the tax intact.

“Keep the existing fund as its sits, no one wants to endanger the Wheeler or the ability to collect the RETT,” Bass said.

Hall and Ramberg pointed out that it would still be up to the city to allocate 50% of future RETT funds through its overhauled grant process for arts and cultural organizations.

“We would be on equal footing and opening it up to all the arts in the valley,” Ramberg said.

The group would apply for an allocation so that the district theater could be overhauled to accommodate world-class performances and bring it up to date with dressing rooms, a separate entrance and other upgrades.

“You already have the asset, utilize it,” Bass said. “It’s the highest and best use than having that money sitting there.”

Ramberg said it’s the most environmentally responsible way to provide entertainment space for the community.

“It’s on mass transit, it’s owned by the community and has parking,” Ramberg said. “It’s such an obvious win for the community, and it’s a win for council.”

The additional freed-up money could fund dozens of local arts and cultural nonprofits and organizations who are in need, Hall said, noting the recent dissolution of the 25-year-old Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Aspen City 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 members have said in recent meetings they would prefer posing a question to voters about reallocating Wheeler RETT funds in fall 2022.

The group floating the petition this week said the time is now to free up money for a district theater that is in disrepair and organizations that are in need of more funding.

“I’m incredibly grateful for people who work in public service, but this is about putting the money to a higher and better use while protecting the Wheeler,” Hall said. “Our community has needs, let’s use it.”