Littleton’s city council is staring down a full plate of priorities for the remainder of 2022 and into 2023, hoping to tackle a slew of initiatives on financial sustainability, arts and culture, affordable housing and more.
Council members discussed their agenda with city staff during an April 12 meeting that sparked questions of how much money, and what staff, would be needed to get the jobs done.
Some goals are already underway, thanks to money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal law passed in March 2021 that gave billions of dollars in aid to states and local governments reeling from the effects of COVID-19.
Littleton received just over $12 million in aid money that needs to be fully spent by 2026 but will allow the city to be able to “do things we could never even dream of a couple years ago,” according to City Manager Mark Relph.
To meet the city’s needs for financial sustainability, staff plans to invest $3.4 million of the funds to standardize and centralize city software and hardware in what is known as enterprise resource planning.
The investment will allow for more transparent and faster financial updates between the city and residents, something that “we have really needed here at the city for a number of years,” according to finance director Tiffany Hooton.
Coming off the heels of Ballot Issue 3A, which raised the city’s sales tax by 0.75% after passing in the November election, staff said the city will be able to shore up its infrastructure and seek more grant opportunities.
The city has seen a strong showing in its sales and use tax, which was up 25% in 2021 compared to 2020. And with the bump in tax from 3A, the city has been able to bring in over $1.2 million between January, when it went into effect, and March.
Mayor Kyle Schlachter reminded fellow council members and staff that even though the one-off federal investments have helped buoy the city, its commitment to financial sustainability must be long standing as it emerges from the pandemic.
“It’s not just a one-time action, it’s a cultural change,” Schlachter said.
ARPA has also been critical in resurrecting the Littleton Museum and Bemis Library, which faced heavy staff cuts and reductions in its hours before about $256,000 in federal money was used in August to begin restoring its operations.
Now fully staffed with pre-pandemic hours, city staff and council members are hoping to boost the amenities as part of their plans for arts and culture, which also include investments in the Town Hall Arts Center and the city’s marketing campaign.
To pay for this in the long term, staff have proposed creating a lodging tax which council mulled during a March 22 meeting. Staff will pick up the conversation again at a future meeting and may refer to the decision to a ballot issue for the November 2022 election.
Among perhaps the most complex and ambitious proposals is to address Littleton’s need for affordable housing, which Relph has called one of the most important issues facing not just the city but the entire Front Range.
With a new land-use code, the ULUC, laying the foundation for more housing to be built throughout the city, some council members are eager to take up some form of an affordable housing ordinance. The idea was discussed during a Jan. 11 study session and will be taken up again by council on May 3.
Council has also already approved $1 million in ARPA funding to be set aside for affordable housing initiatives.
Relph has called for a mix of housing types that include not just higher-density apartments but attached townhouse and row homes to support mixed-family developments.
A 2020 study found that the proportion of young families in Littleton continues to fall as housing prices climb higher. And more recently, a survey found that the Denver metro area is the fifth least affordable housing market in the country, according to the Denver Post.
It’s fueled a host of problems in Littleton including declining school enrollment and city staffing and a rise in homelessness.
“The data clearly shows that we have a high degree of people who are families who are homeless,” Relph said.
City staff, after partnering in 2017 with research firm Root Policy to identify its housing needs, have called for thousands of new housing units to be built by 2040 to keep up with demand. But recent proposals to add high-density housing, such as at the Aspen Grove shopping center, have faced community rebuke.
And staff and council members have faced allegations from residents of not doing enough to protect the city’s community character through the city’s land-use code, something staff have vehemently pushed back on.
“We’ve gone through great lengths to try to make sure that it matches up with the community character of the surrounding area,” Relph said, adding that the ULUC includes 16 different character zones aimed at preserving Littleton’s unique features.
Other council initiatives include creating an authority board for the city’s downtown, supporting environmental stewardship and adhering to good governance. But the list of proposals will come at a cost as more staff hires will be needed to fill various proposed positions, such as someone to oversee environmental efforts.
“We’re really increasing staff quite a bit,” said Councilmember At-Large Pam Grove. “Can we afford all this?”
The questions highlight one that will likely spill into future budgetary discussions as council decides which proposals it will prefer over others.
Relph said council should not be considered about spending for the remainder of the year thanks to the support of ARPA. But with inflation continuing to surge among a volatile economy, 2023 and beyond could look different. It’s why he, and other council members, have urged some caution in how ambition to be.
“You can only increase your staff so much and do so many things,” Grove said.