S’mass confused over project spending limits
Voters in Snowmass Village are already feeling the effects of their approval of an initiative limiting the spending authority of the Town Council.
The Snowmass Village Town Council discovered Monday night that they may have to ask voters for permission to build an affordable housing project that’s been in the planning stages for most of the last year.
Parcel N, more than three acres of town-owned property located on Brush Creek Road several hundred yards below the wooden foot bridge, was to be the site for the village’s next large affordable housing project. The proposal has just one round of approvals left, and construction is scheduled to begin as soon as January.
But for now, everything is on hold while the Town Council decides what to do with the project.
The source of the indecision on Parcel N is tied to the citizens’ initiative passed earlier this month that caps the town government’s spending authority on capital projects. The initiative, which passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, limits spending on any one project in any given year to 40 percent of the town’s tax revenues; next year’s cap is expected to be about $4 million.
If built, the Parcel N project would have 10 three-bedroom and six two-bedroom townhomes that would be put up for sale to working residents of Snowmass Village. It is expected to cost more than $5 million to build, according to preliminary estimates used in Monday night’s discussion.
“I think if you take a strict reading of the initiative, it needs to go to the voters,” said Snowmass Village town attorney Stephen Connor. He pointed out that the town would have trouble borrowing money to build the project if it has not been blessed by the voters.
Connor and the Town Council spent a good chunk of the meeting grappling with the question of whether a project that is already well under way is affected by the law.
But town resident Bob Purvis pointed out that once the units are sold, the total cost of the project will be well below the $4 million limit. “I think once you’ve sold the units off, the net contribution from the town is going to be a lot less than $4 million,” he said.
So, if the town is going to end up spending much less than $4 million in the long run, but must spend more than that in the short run, does it need voter approval to proceed with a given project?
Connor said the initiative does not address the question. It simply says that any project costing more than the amount allowed by the formula must receive voter approval before it is started.
But the spokesman for the group that wrote the initiative and presented it to voters isn’t so sure the new law applies to Parcel N.
“It’s aimed at projects that are intended for a broad public purpose, not those destined for private ownership,” said Jim Heywood. “Assuming the subsidy for this project ends up being one or two million dollars, as opposed to $10 million, I don’t think it would apply.”
Town Councilman Jack Hatfield said he thought Parcel N is exempt from the initiative because it has already been approved. Because the proposal is “already in the hopper,” it is exempt from the new law, Hatfield said. “I voted for the initiative, and I’m comfortable with the interpretation,” he said.
Town Manager Gary Suiter pointed out that the town hasn’t chosen a contractor for the project, so there was no real financial commitment at this stage. Attorney Connor added that the language in the initiative didn’t make any exceptions for projects that are “already in the hopper.”
Hatfield’s colleagues on the Town Council said they would like to meet with Heywood and members of the initiative committee to discuss their intent and how to write an ordinance that complies with the new law. Heywood said he would be happy to help out any way he could.
But caution still reigns at Town Hall. Connor and Suiter both pointed out that the town is bound by the initiative passed by the voters, not the intent of the people who wrote it.
“I think the Town Council will take the staff’s suggestion and hold an election on Parcel N sometime in January,” Suiter said.
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It might be public service serving on Aspen City Council but it doesn’t pay enough, the majority of electeds say. That’s why they are proposing to give their successors a $12,000 raise.