The Aspen City Council supported sending the half-percent open space sales tax to this November’s ballot for renewal and explored potential ballot language at its Monday work session.
Parks and Recreation Director Austin Weiss said that staff is hoping to ask voters to approve a permanent 0.5% sales tax, which he maintained benefits the community in many ways.
“The story we want to tell tonight is how important the existence of the half-cent tax is for the ongoing maintenance of everything that we provide to the community,” Weiss said. “Currently, it’s kind of penciled in that we’re going to voters this November, and we want to make sure everyone is still comfortable with that strategy — and then we also want to start to focus in on actual ballot language.”
The half-cent tax was approved by Aspen voters in 2000 and imposes an additional 0.5% tax on all sales tax as well as allowing an additional $38 million in debt bonding authority, according to a memorandum from staff. The tax is currently set to sunset on Dec. 31, 2025 and provides roughly one-third of the Parks and Open Space revenue, which is used for operational and capital expenses, according to the memo.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she was fully supportive of moving the question to the ballot and improving facilities and programs but added that she would like to see greater regional community involvement in shared facilities.
“I am very supportive of this question moving forward, without any question,” she said. “For me, to move forward with a simple renewal — asking people to renew the existing language — is the most straightforward and simplest and easiest to pass.”
Mayor Torre said that part of the reason for the council’s support was a June survey that staff presented showing community support for the tax. In the survey, 86% of respondents said they supported the tax and would like to see it continue. Torre, emphasizing that the council was listening to the polling, also asked staff to clarify questions that he said he often hears from community members.
“What I hear from people when they talk to me is, ‘Well, if this is permanent, what are you going to be doing when all the land is bought that you can buy, and all your facilities are maintained in a certain state? — that hopefully we’re not looking at capital improvements that are in the tens of millions of dollars all the time,’” Torre said. “What happens?”
Staff plans to continue putting effort into projects like finding affordable housing, facilities upkeep and maintenance in the long term. Weiss noted that maintenance costs for infrastructure and facilities will only increase over time.
Staff will return to council later this month with a resolution to extend the tax and place it on the November ballot.
The council also gave feedback on potential revisions to the parks department’s special events policy. Staff asked council members for feedback on whether to proceed with a guiding philosophy, establishing a formal park framework that would cover allowable size, frequency and type of events, and whether to establish a public engagement process to determine if parks or buildings should be used for commercial uses.
The council was supportive of moving forward with the philosophy that staff proposed, which reads, “The city of Aspen parks are natural environments that are first and foremost available for the community to enjoy.” Richards suggested adding the term “sustainability” in some form to incorporate the council’s environmental goals into the philosophy.
Council members had more questions than answers about establishing a park-use framework, given the number of possible uses and events in each of the city’s parks, but were ultimately supportive of moving forward. They did not support a community survey to discuss commercial use and asked staff to come back with more information.
Parks and Open Space Director Matt Kuhn said that next steps include community consultation and outreach, as well as a follow-up work session at a later date.