Basalt council favors two ballot questions on Pan and Fork issues
The Aspen Times
SIGNS FOR SCANLON
Basalt business owners and operators are showing their support for Mike Scanlon, the former town manager who resigned Aug. 19.
Several businesses placed signs in their windows Tuesday saying, “Thank You Mike Scanlon.”
Scanlon terminated his contract after he claimed his performance was reviewed in public by a portion of the board earlier in the month. He said that review constituted a violation of his contract. He contends he is entitled to 12 months of severance pay, per the contract terms.
Scanlon offered his resignation after three board positions turned over in the April election but he was given a 7-0 vote of confidence at that time. Nevertheless, there have been ongoing disputes between Scanlon and some members of the board, particularly over financial issues.
The employment settlement is in the hands of attorneys hired by the town and Scanlon. Neither side is talking. The council will have to approve any severance package in a public meeting.
The Basalt Town Council decided to ask two questions in the November election to try to bring closure to the fate of the former Pan and Fork property.
One question will ask voters if they want to buy 2.3 acres of land currently owned by the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. The town has a contract to buy the property for $3 million, contingent on an appraisal showing it’s valued at that amount or higher. The contract also is contingent on voter approval.
The second question will ask if voters will approve roughly $4 million for park improvements.
If voters approve both issues, it would require about $7 million in bonding. A property tax and an existing sales tax would be used to repay the bonds. Town officials also believe they can get open space funds from Pitkin County, Eagle County or both.
The council didn’t take a formal vote at Tuesday’s work session. However, they gave direction to their bond counsel and staff to prepare final ballot wording. The language will be reviewed and voted on by the council Sept. 6 in a special meeting.
Park amenities scaled back
The council agreed to reduce the proposed park improvements by about $2.6 million after listening to the public Tuesday evening and in various earlier open houses.
“I didn’t hear any voices saying, ‘We want the whole meal deal,’” Councilman Auden Schendler said.
The pared back plan features $2.25 million for a “base level design” of the park and $515,500 for a band shell with restrooms and related amenities.
Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said he would prefer the full development plan for the park, but he feels scaling it back is a good compromise with the majority of the public.
“I’ve heard it. I’ve heard we definitely need to pare it down,” Tennenbaum said.
Schendler noted that the two-question approach poses the risk of voters approving the purchase of the land but not approving park improvements.
“Is that not a problem?” he asked.
Tennenbaum said the town would have to phase improvements for the park from its existing sales tax dedicated to open space and trails improvements. It would take more patience, but would still be worth it.
“Buying land is never a problem,” Tennenbaum said.
If voters reject the purchase but approve funding for parks, the money would be used on 2.5 acres of land the town already owns at the Pan and Fork site, along the Roaring Fork River.
The council and staff were concerned over how to phrase the land purchase ballot question wording to give different factions of town voters confidence in the plan. The council has agreed to devote about half of the 2.3 acres to development. The rest would be engulfed into the park. However, the wording in the ballot question is vague on the advice of bond advisor Paul Wisor.
As proposed, the ballot question will say the land being purchased is “to be used for commercial development and a town river park.” It doesn’t designate a specific amount for development.
Schendler said vague wording will “lose people” from both camps — those that strongly support development and those that favor a park. He wanted a specific amount of development identified.
“It’s just too squishy otherwise,” he said.
The council majority decided it should remain more vague on the advice of Wisor. The council’s intent can be made clear in campaign materials, they said.
Variety of public opinion
The council heard a wide variety of opinions while taking testimony for about an hour. Some speakers were critical of the town’s plan to extend an existing property tax that is being used to pay off a bond issued in 2013.
That bond is on schedule to be paid off by 2020 and, under normal circumstances, the property tax dedicated to it would be paid off. Under the new plan, the property tax would be extended through 2026 to pay off the new bonds.
Ted Guy told the council an extended tax is the same as a new tax. “It is a new tax. Let’s not try to pull a rabbit out of the hat here. It is a new tax,” Guy said.
Greg Shugars said the town has a great opportunity to fund its vision now because interest rates on bonds are the lowest they have been in about 65 years. The ballot proposal assumes a 3 percent interest rate. It’s highly likely the town could get a lower rate, financial advisor Bruce Kimmel said.
Roy Chorbajian urged the council to focus on locking up the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. land, pare down park costs and proceed as it can with landscaping and amenities.
“Tie up the property,” he said, noting that Aspen is a better place thanks to its major parks — Paepcke, Wagner and Rio Grande.
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“I don’t know how to feel about it,” said the Basalt firefighter who lost his home in the Lake Christine Fire last July about the sentence facing the couple who started the blaze.