Guest commentary: Petition for change RETT funding is off-base

Rachel Ricards
Guest commentary

I‘m declining to sign any petitions to change the Wheeler Opera House Real Estate Transfer Tax. Period.

Colorado just voted to repeal the Gallagher amendment, which put budgetary controls into law which attempted to stabilize residential property tax rates. It ended up devastating special districts (hospitals, fire, ambulance, libraries) and levying unsustainable taxes on commercial properties.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) voted into state constitution has resulted in the painful deterioration of Colorado’s infrastructure, noticeable with crumbling roads and K-12 schools receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less than a decade ago. Tabor also made new Real Estate Transfer Taxes (RETTs) unconstitutional: leaving fewer tools to fund community needs. Budgeting by ballot box is a crude tool with often cruel results.

Regardless, four people have pulled a ratio out of thin air, a 50/50 split to allocate future Wheeler RETT revenue. No financial modeling has occurred, no long-term assurance that the monies remaining with the Wheeler would sufficiently care for a 100-year-old building, allow modernization as times change, subsidize local performances, or maintain ticket and refreshment prices that working locals might afford. No reductions in bad years — or guidance on grant allocations.

Worse, the group’s real intent was revealed by the other initiative they submitted, directing a straight $10 million dollars out of the Wheeler Endowment to the Aspen School District. Despite the claims of “having worked on this for years” — this shadow group has not publicly divulged their plans to the Wheeler Opera House or Aspen School District boards or the City Council.

Why has the district theater been allowed to decline so that a $10 million fix is required? Is it for renovation? Or a brand new theater complex? Why ask only Aspen residents to fund this new $10 million dollar need? Why not ask Woody Creek, Snowmass and all the school district residents? Where does the school board stand on this effort?

It has taken over 20 years for the Wheeler Endowment to grow to its current levels, years of balancing capital needs, subsidies, operations and grants. Our petition friends seem to think that good economies roll on forever, but I’ve seen what recessions can do to what seemed to be substantial reserves. The Wheeler fund is not “money just sitting there.” If it weren’t for the stewardship of the Wheeler funds thus far there would not be the needed reserves to support the Wheeler in the future, or to allow the current city consideration of greater contributions to the arts.

During multiple public meetings on the Wheeler, (which none of the petitioners attended) — to ensure that whatever Wheeler question may be proposed obtains the requisite 60% “Yes” margin — know that I have clearly stated I fully support substantially increasing the Wheeler contributions to the arts.

But I will not support a ballot question as half-baked, or as self-servingly initiated, as this. Unfortunately, and seemingly deliberately, the opportunity for council to put a Wheeler question on the ballot is being effectively foreclosed by this petition drive. Dueling ballot questions would likely end in failure for both. Speaking as only one council member, I will be actively opposing this initiative, until November as needed, and respectfully ask that you decline to sign the petition.

Rachel E. Richards is a member of the Aspen City Council.