City of Aspen may repurpose millions of dollars in arts funding
Aspen City Council has agreed to resurrect the idea of repurposing the funding mechanism for the Wheeler Opera House in favor of another community use.
The Wheeler is funded in part by a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax, which voters in 2016 extended through 2039. The tax had been set to expire in 2019.
Councilman Adam Frisch said this week the lead-up to that election and part of the campaign was telling the community that the money could be reappropriated in the future through a public vote.
Now it’s been 16 months since that election and it’s time to talk about it again, Frisch said, adding that some people may have voted to extend the tax thinking the revenue would go elsewhere.
“People will be upset they were sold a bag of goods,” he said. “I think the community is owed a discussion about what to do with the money.”
Some of the conversations prior to the election were repurposing the tax revenue for the local affordable housing program or the Aspen School District, among others.
The conversation came up Tuesday during the council’s meeting with the Wheeler board, which recently did an assessment on the facility’s long-range funding needs. It was determined that the board’s 20-year capital plan requires $20 million.
Additionally, the board wants to save some funds for a potential facility expansion in the future. The board also noted that the Wheeler’s operations will require continued subsidy from that tax.
Currently, the fund holds just over $31 million.
“I think there is enough money for that building to be taken care of, and money left over to be spread around,” Frisch said.
The tax can “be used only for the purpose of renovation, reconstruction and maintenance of the Wheeler Opera House and for the purpose of supporting the visual and performing arts.”
The ballot question in 2016 said the money would be “earmarked for the maintenance of the Wheeler Opera House and the support of the visual and performing arts.”
Frisch said when the tax first passed in the 1970s, it was envisioned that it would generate a couple hundred thousand dollars. Now it’s in the millions.
“We’ve been given a gift,” he said. “I just want to make sure the money is being used in the best way.”
Last year saw nearly $2 billion in real estate sales in Pitkin County, accounting for over $5 million collected by the Wheeler through Aspen property transactions.
City Manager Steve Barwick said he can do some research and bring information back to council by June. Whatever options are put out there, repurposing the tax revenue would have to be approved by voters.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”