Kids, housing focus of Aspen ballot measures
ASPEN ” There are three city of Aspen questions on the Nov. 4 ballot, but you’d never know it based on the nearly nonexistent campaigns urging voters to either support or oppose them.
There is only one organized committee actively raising money for the city’s initiatives. The Childcare/Housing 2008 Committee has raised $390 so far to promote the passage of Referendum 2E, which asks to renew the 0.45 percent city’s housing/daycare sales tax until 2040. The tax expires in 2012.
A portion of the revenue generated from the tax ” 55 percent ” feeds money to area daycare providers through the city’s Kids First program. The other 45 percent goes to the city’s affordable-housing program.
Referendum 2F seeks to renew the 1 percent Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT), which is the largest funding mechanism for the housing program. That tax doesn’t expire until 2024 but voters are being asked to extend it to 2040.
A third question, referendum 2G, asks to increase the units at Burlingame Ranch from 236 to as much as 300.
Kids First Director Shirley Ritter said she and supporters of the tax extension will gear up the campaign in coming weeks with phone calls to registered voters and advertisements. She said the tax is crucial to the operation of Kids First, which administers programs and allocates funding to benefit early childhood programs and families in Pitkin County.
Ritter said the tax revenue funds 97 percent of the Kids First operating budget, which was about $1.4 million in 2008. It was first established in 1990 because there was a need for daycare for young families who also needed housing. It was renewed by voters in 1999.
If it doesn’t get renewed again this election, it can be posed to voters in the May 2009 election and again in 2010.
“There is a little bit of time but not a lot,” Ritter said. “We are being proactive by asking now.”
She said 400 children every day are enrolled in childcare programs in Pitkin County and if this program didn’t exist, the parents of those children would be taken out of the workforce caring for their children instead of working.
“I don’t think anyone would argue against the need for affordable housing or daycare in this community,” Ritter said. “I know we serve a huge number of people on both sides.”
Aspen resident Mike Maple said he is opposed to renewing the tax not because he doesn’t support the daycare program but because there is no solid plan for the city’s housing program.
“It’s not appropriate to extend that without a plan,” he said.
Maple also said he doesn’t think the two programs should be connected through one tax source.
“I would rather see the daycare issue and the housing issue separated,” he said.
Maple also noted that the housing/daycare tax was initially created so that it would last 10 years. Extending it for 30 years is not appropriate, he argued.
“It was meant to be short so the community can periodically assess where we are with the housing program,” he said. “A shorter length of time allows us to reassess this and not lock the community in for  years.
“This time frame is unnecessarily long.”
City officials argue that the taxes are a critical part of Aspen’s long-term strategy to deal with a lack of affordable housing. Some council members may campaign on that premise, but there’s been no active effort thus far.
Because the housing fund has been depleted as a result of $31 million in land acquisitions last year, revenue from the RETT and the housing/daycare tax won’t immediately enable officials to continue building housing. The only option, city officials say, is to ask voters to borrow against future tax revenues through what officials hope will be tax-exempt bonds. The tax extensions are needed to pay back bonds with 20- or 30-year terms.
Earlier this year, the Aspen City Council had contemplated a bond question of anywhere from $50 million to $93 million to finish Burlingame and other developments throughout the city. But without a clear plan on how to build those projects and the threat of a looming recession, the council first pared down the bond proposal and then killed it altogether. It’s expected that a bond question will be posed to voters in May but for how much is not known.
Some think renewing the RETT is premature and isn’t necessary, especially if the city government has no formal plan to build future housing.
“It’s still got 16 years before it sunsets, and we don’t need to make decisions that will affect us 16 years from now,” said Don Davidson, a member of the Citizen Budget Task Force. “Without a bond issue, I don’t see a reason to make a decision now.”
But Aspen resident Ward Hauenstein said there is a good reason to renew the RETT ” to secure a funding mechanism for future bonds.
“It’s housekeeping to get ready for a bond proposal,” he said, adding when it comes time to ask voters to approve a bond, he will expect a detailed plan then from city officials on the financing, building and management of future affordable housing. “For me, it’s pretty straight forward.”
Referendum 2G relates to the Burlingame Ranch housing project, located across from Buttermilk ski area on the north side of Highway 82, where one of three construction phases is complete. The advisory question will ask voters for direction on whether to proceed with construction according to recent recommendations from a citizen budget task force, an outside audit concerning the city’s performance as a developer, and a construction experts group that is currently studying the best way to build additional units.
A second part of the question asks voters if they prefer the originally planned 236 units at Burlingame, or as many as 300, as the construction experts group has recommended. The units would be stacked and built with modular construction techniques; the increased density would lower the city’s per unit subsidy because more units would be available for sale.
Davidson is a proponent of maximizing the land at Burlingame with as many multifamily units as possible.
“Number one, there is a need for affordable housing; number two, the construction experts group recommended 293 units; and number three, there is an unavailability of land in the urban growth boundary,” he said. “You’ve got to optimize the land you’ve got.”
He also said it takes years of planning to develop on vacant land whereas at Burlingame, it’s already designed. What’s more, the land and infrastructure already is paid for.
While there is no formalized opposition, current homeowners have the right, according to state statute, to have an unanimous vote on whether more units should be built. While they have not taken a position yet, some have said that more density will mean more cars and traffic, and there aren’t enough places to park as it is. On the other hand, more units mean lower homeowner dues because more people will be living there.
Also, the people who opposed the development of Burlingame in the 2005 election because it was considered urban sprawl and a traffic generator into town may vote against more density. However, they have not organized an effort to campaign against the notion.
The city ballot questions will be discussed and debated at a public forum being held Wednesday at the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Institute from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The format will focus on the local ballot issues, featuring three-minute presentations by one supporter and one detractor on each issue, followed by questions from the audience. Pitkin County commissioner candidates also will be given time to speak about their positions.
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