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County Gets $1.3 Million in Surplus Cannabis Money

Supervisor Williams Pushes to Spend Extra Tax Revenue on Pet Projects, but Board Doesn’t Budge

Das Williams pushed fellow supervisors to take advantage of the $1.3 million surplus the cannabis industry generated in tax revenues this year by bumping spending for a handful of key pet programs. His pleas, however, fell on unsupportive ears, much to his chagrin. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara’s legalized cannabis industry has generated enough heat during its short time in existence that even when there’s good news, the County Board of Supervisors can still find a way to get their collective noses out of joint. In this case, the most pained proboscis in the supervisors’ chambers belonged to 1st District Supervisor Das Williams. 

When it turned out that the cannabis industry generated, $6.7 million last year, $1.3 million more in tax revenues this year than the county supervisors had initially budgeted, Williams pushed fellow supervisors to take advantage by bumping spending to the tune of $1 million for a handful of key pet programs. Such a spending change, however, requires a four-vote supermajority, but not one of Williams’s colleagues would agree to sign on.

Williams was not shy about expressing his displeasure. “If we don’t do anything, it’s really going to tick me off,” he stated. When that didn’t achieve the desired results, Williams declared, “It really pisses me off. It’s wrong.”

Earlier, Williams got into it with 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, who argued ​— ​as did the other supervisors ​— ​that any additional expenditures should be authorized during the supervisors’ annual budget deliberations, which begin in April. As part of his argument, Adam noted that in his own personal transactions, he did not spend all the money in his bank account.

Williams responded with a personal attack: “That’s easy to do when you’re one of the biggest land owners in the county.”

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, the board chair, intervened. “Let’s take a time out,” he said.

Williams is under the gun politically, facing a serious challenge from Santa Barbara school boardmember and fellow Democrat Laura Capps in his bid to be reelected county supervisor in March 2020. Capps was strongly urged to run by anti-cannabis advocates based in Carpinteria, who charge Williams has been more interested in promoting the interest of the new industry than he was in protecting them from the olfactory intrusions of the cannabis greenhouses in Carpinteria.

On Tuesday, Williams argued his district had “felt the most impact” from the new crop. “It’s not acceptable not to feel the benefits, too,” he pleaded. 

Williams argued that county budget planners had been unduly conservative in estimating the revenues cannabis would generate when adopting last year’s budget, and he said so at the time. If revenues come in higher than expected, he was told at the time, the supervisors could adjust accordingly.

Now the additional revenues are here, he complained, but the supervisors ​— ​including his allies on the board ​— ​are unwilling to increase spending on road infrastructure repairs, electrical vehicle repairs, and active transportation programs like Safe Routes to Schools or to spend $66,000 for field-testing machines capable of distinguishing cannabis from hemp. Even when Williams agreed to cut his request almost by half, he was left hanging.

Shortly after the supervisors voted to deny Williams’ multiple pleas, however, they agreed to open the door to a funding bump for the Safe Routes to School part of his request. Williams was seeking $200,000 to $250,000 of the cannabis revenues to cover this program. No specific amount was agreed to by the supervisors; that will be determined only after the Public Works Department holds public hearings on actual proposals. That will take place in the months ahead, and presumably before the April preview hearings on the next year’s county budget. 

The last couple of weeks have been intense and congested where cannabis is concerned. Last Wednesday the Planning Commission spent eight hours deliberating over an appeal of the land-use permit granted the owners of the Busy Bee’s Organics cannabis plantation, located off Highway 246. Ultimately, the commissioners voted to kick that can down the road to this Thursday. On Wednesday, the planning commissioners heard two more cannabis cultivation sites appealed. More appeals are lined up still.

Lost in all this foment has been the fate of the eight recreational cannabis dispensaries that the supervisors initially said they would one day allow. This Tuesday afternoon, the supervisors weighed in on the process by which the dispensaries will eventually be selected. Some of the gloom engendered by the earlier debate over cannabis seemed to carry over. All supervisors agreed that the applicants need to be judged, in part, on how well they address issues of community compatibility.

One of the zones slated for a new dispensary is Summerland, which Williams represents. He made it clear Summerland needs a place where residents can buy food; any dispensary that does not meet that unmet need, he said, was dead on arrival. If that issue is not addressed, Williams declared, “I’m done.”

This declaration more than piqued Supervisor Adam’s curiosity. “What do you mean?” he asked. “You don’t want to do it?” Adam noted that he didn’t want to do it either, but that the supervisors had a dispensary for Orcutt, which he represents.

In the meantime, a majority of the supervisors indicated they might not approve eight dispensaries as they had initially said they would. They will still approve one dispensary for each area in the county for which there is an approved community plan, but that’s only six. The fates of the other three ​— ​in Vandenberg Village, Cuyama, and Casmalia ​— ​remain uncertain.

The supervisors are looking to hire an outside consultant to screen applicants for financial soundness and the background of key players. Three of the dispensaries are slated for the 3rd Supervisorial District, represented by Joan Hartmann. The speculative pressure on available sites ​— ​especially in Isla Vista ​— ​has reportedly been extremely intense with property owners asking for and being offered astronomical sums. All applicants must first demonstrate they control a site before their application can be considered.

In addition to community compatibility, a majority of the supervisors made it clear they were interested in proposals that addressed the disparate impact of drug sentencing laws on defendants of color in some fashion. They also would like all dispensaries with 15 employees or more to offer “labor peace agreements.”

How all these considerations will be ranked and weighted ​— ​and by whom ​— ​has yet to be determined; the same is true for how projects address community needs and compatibility.

County administrator Mona Miyasato cautioned the supervisors she needed objective criteria by which such considerations could be evaluated. That, she stressed, was especially true for the supervisors’ interest in providing local applicants a leg up.

The supervisors will next address the issue of dispensary applications in January 2020.  

Editor’s Note: Agreement to more spending on Safe Passage to Schools was added to this story on Nov. 8.

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