Status quo on Wheeler money reallocation question for November ballot

Aspen voters will decide this fall on whether to repurpose real estate transfer tax revenue for broader arts funding

After calling a special meeting, two Aspen City Council members were unsuccessful Friday in swaying one of their colleagues to change their mind on a vote earlier this week to send a ballot question to voters asking to repurpose a portion of real estate transfer tax revenue that funds the Wheeler Opera House.

Friday’s decision came at 4 p.m., one hour before the 5 p.m. deadline to get a ballot question to the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office for the Nov. 2 election.

Freshman Councilman John Doyle, who has been in office for three months, was considered the swing vote since he said during Tuesday’s special meeting that he could see the merits of sending the question to voters this year but also understood the arguments to wait until November 2022.

Doyle eventually sided Tuesday with Mayor Torre and Councilman Skippy Mesirow to send the question to voters in a 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Rachel Richards and Ward Hauenstein dissenting.

Doyle did not waiver in his stance on Friday, even though he made a motion to reconsider the ordinance and resolution sending the question to voters but ultimately he voted no, as did Torre and Mesirow.

Richards and Hauenstein called the special meeting saying they felt Tuesday’s vote was flawed because Mesirow joined the meeting virtually an hour and a half after four members of the board ended up deadlocked 2-2 on approving an ordinance that allows the ballot question.

“If the process is flawed, the outcome of the issue is as well,” Hauenstein said Friday. “The outcome of the meeting on Tuesday left me more upset than any of the over 100 City Council meetings I’ve participated in, or witnessed, for a tie vote, a dead vote.”

Richards said calling for a reconsideration in a special meeting was the first type of action she has ever used in her 28 years in public office.

“Last Tuesday evening I questioned briefly in the public hearing … a member not in attendance at the meeting voting on items in the meeting,” she said. “I should’ve objected more strongly.”

Since Tuesday’s meeting, Hauenstein and Richards met separately with Doyle attempting to convince him to lean toward their positions.

Doyle also had spoken with other members of the council individually prior to Friday’s meeting regarding the ballot question.

Richards opposed 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.

She also has said the question is 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.

However, she supports the concept of funding more arts but the question should be asked in the fall of 2022 so voters can be fully educated, arts groups can promote the question and it’s during a midterm election when more people typically come to the polls, she said Friday.

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 (RETT) for more arts support.

Mesirow and Torre said the time is now to ask voters, and the details of how much to leave for the Wheeler and setting parameters for arts spending can be done via ordinance by council vote.

“I am excited about this opportunity and I would like to see this move forward,” Torre said.

Friday was the fourth meeting in a month in which council has met to discuss diverting Wheeler money for other arts uses, and one of over a dozen this year talking about funding other community needs with the same revenue source.

Currently, the Wheeler Opera House has a fund balance of $40 million and some elected officials and community members believe that the coffers have grown too large. Therefore, future RETT revenue can be put to use in other growing areas of need.

The ballot question asks that a portion of the Wheeler’s RETT 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 straits due to challenges in the film industry.

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 RETT 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 tax through 2039 and reaffirmed the 1979 vote that any change in funding would require support of 60% of the electorate.