The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday needed a 4/5 vote to pass the county’s newly created Division of Cannabis Control budget, and for the second time in a month, members were unable to authorize the transfer.
District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli and District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills provided the dissenting votes in a Nov. 19 meeting on the same budget. In that meeting, Tofanelli requested the item be brought back to the board at a later date.
On Tuesday, County Administrative Officer Al Alt presented the same agenda item supervisors saw a few weeks ago with a couple of minor tweaks.
The budget was drafted to fund the implementation of the commercial cannabis cultivation ordinance and the cannabis background clearance badge ordinance, which both passed on 3-2 votes on Oct. 22.
Implementation was to be financed through fees charged to those participating in the program.
The Division of Cannabis Control was created in order to oversee and streamline the regulation of cultivation, operating under the supervision of the County Administrative Office.
Under the fee study for the cultivation ordinance, cultivation permits cost $12,561.78 with annual renewal fees of $2,606.75, a background check fee of $153 and an appeal fee of $947.
Alt said the county is legally obligated to start issuing permits on Dec. 23, when fees become effective.
“The board has spoken and staff is in an obligation to proceed with this regardless and have been, so we’ve all been doing a lot of work toward accomplishing these goals … staff is in a position where we have to do what the board has already directed us to do,” said Ethan Turner, deputy county counsel.
Alt reiterated that if supervisors didn’t pass the budget, cannabis regulations would fall on the shoulders of existing staff. The county would still be able to collect the fees, but it would be unable to spend them without an approved budget, so hiring new staff would not be possible and program costs would have to be paid for out of existing budgets.
“It’s going to create a competition of what the original intent of the budget was and us repurposing for cannabis,” Alt said.
As an example of how application fees would fund new positions and equipment needed to implement the program, Alt said that if, hypothetically, 50 permits were processed by February, that would generate $628,000 of income to the county, not including other grower fees.
The majority of the initial staffing would be in the cannabis control office, which is “virtually left unstaffed” without a budget, Alt said.
Whether the budget is approved or not, the program is going to be hindered anyway due to an anticipated period of three to four months for recruiting, Alt added.
Multiple department heads expressed to supervisors that their operations would be severely impacted without the budget’s approval.
“It would be pretty crazy, I think, I’m not sure what we (would) do,” said Environmental Management Administrator Brad Banner, whose department is supposed to be receiving two new positions for implementing the ordinance. Food inspections “would likely be the first thing to go as we struggle to meet this demand workload.”
Chief Building Official Doug Oliver said department heads are on the same page, and that the program is “no longer special,” with regard to the various permitting processes required for implementation.
The Urgency Ordinance “was handled differently, and the departments now see that,” Oliver said. “I’m very confident. This system is very robust.”
Planning Director Peter Maurer said his staff of seven will be “adversely impacted” if they have to process 190 applications without additional staffing.
County Counsel Megan Stedtfeld, speaking at her last board meeting before leaving the post, said she hopes the county is able to increase staffing in the office back to “historical levels” to minimize the impacts of rolling out the program.
That includes five attorneys and two paralegals to focus on day-to-day operations, cases, assisting clients, and handling legal matters not related to cannabis, with two full-time personnel focused exclusively on assisting the departments that are implementing the program, Stedtfeld said.
Tofanelli expressed concerns with tracking program expenditures and running out of funding for permanent employees. Alt said earlier in the meeting that a fiscal work group has established a timesheet system for departments to fill out to keep program costs transparent.
“What happens if you kick it out and find out they weren’t legitimate hours being spent on this program? … What happens to those (10 permanent positions) after initial funding is out? There’s not enough in renewal fees to sustain those 10 employees,” Tofanelli said.
Tofanelli also said he disagreed with “housing employees” in various departments to carry out the program, rather than having one department dedicated to all facets of cannabis regulations.
In defending his no vote, Mills said his primary concerns were the lack of a feasibility study and economic impact study on the program, along with inadequate remediation measures for cleaning up environmental damage caused by grow sites.
“The money has to match the need at the time that the need presents itself and our ability to perform,” Mills said. “We don’t do that, we’re back to another UO on steroids.”
District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi, District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway and District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper detailed their support for passing the budget.
Responding to concerns to a lack of mitigation or remediation of environmental impacts of grow sites, Stopper said the ordinance, unlike the ban, addresses those issues.
Callaway challenged the practicality of a single cannabis department to handle the whole program and emphasized that the fee study was no different than any other county fee study.
“Not all positions were full-time positions. It’s no different than any other department that utilizes the service of another department for a project,” Callaway said. “We treat this like any other permit fee, then evaluate whether we’ve got it or don’t got it … I’m sorry my two colleagues can’t get on board with this, it was as perfect as we could get it as this point in time. The money’s there and we’re going to be asking the other departments to pay the price.”
Garamendi said not passing the budget would cost county staff and taxpayers unnecessarily, as the fees will collect without authorization to spend them.
“Staff came up with a very clear plan on how they can implement this in an effective way,” Garamendi said. “If we don’t do what we’re legally obligated to do by putting this program in place, we are picking the pocket of everybody else in the county when there’s no purpose in doing that. We have the money, we have a plan, and this shouldn’t cost anybody in this county except the growers a nickel … We must be in parallel universes because this is not how good professional work happens.”