Council reviews sales tax, marijuana

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By Paul Myers
@PaulM_SGN
woodlake – The two hottest topics facing Tulare County governments today are undoubtedly sales tax measures and what to do about recreational marijuana. Some cities have decided to take a wait and see approach on marijuana while aggressively pursuing a sales tax increase; Woodlake is starting with an inclusive approach to both.
The Woodlake City Council voted in favor of creating a citizens advisory committee in early March after being presented with their lack of reserves. Currently the committee has not been settled with members but it will be comprised of three at large members of the public, and one member from the fire department, police department, business community and school district. Ultimately the city council will have the final say on what measures should be taken, but the committee plays a valuable role as a liaison between the City and the community.
“If we’re going to move forward with a sales tax measure then you know we want the business community to be heard,” stated Community Development Director Jason Waters in an interview with the Sun-Gazette in March.
“The good thing about the citizens advisory committee is that you have people from all walks of life,” said city administrator Ramon Lara to the council during Woodlake’s April 24 meeting.
Lara noted several reasons why the City was in need of an increased sales tax. Lara pointed to a decrease in utility user taxes as more people convert to solar power products while fewer people install landlines. Other points he added were a decrease in gas tax revenue as fuel efficient cars become more affordable, and increases to employee health benefits and retirement costs reduces funds in other city services while also limiting the amount of employees the City can hire. In terms of reasons to pass a sales tax increase would be to capitalize on the momentum created from funding projects such as downtown improvements and park projects. As well the City would have more money to leverage for State and Federal dollars.
Of the nine cities in Tulare County, Woodlake ranks lowest in populations with 7,648 residents, and lowest in sales tax revenue generated with $414,038. The City also has one of the lowest sales tax rates at 7.75% along with Exeter and Lindsay. However Lindsay currently has a one percent sales tax measure on the ballot in June.
According to Lara the City needs to propose at least a three-quarter percent increase, which is projected to yield an additional $300,000 in revenue annually. A one percent increase would yield $400,000 in additional annual revenue.
Lara added that additional revenue through a sales tax increase would be allocated toward several departments and services. Public safety would benefit from additional officers and preventative programs. Recreational programs would benefit from additional infrastructure, youth sports and adult programs. Parks and equipment would benefit from additional tables, barbeques, lights and playground equipment. Streets and roads would see additional street repairs, pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Lights and landscaping would benefit from more murals, benches and lights throughout the city.
In terms of marijuana, the biggest change yet to come is recreational sales of marijuana at licensed locations starting on Jan. 1, 2018. According to Waters, the city stands to benefit from allowing recreational marijuana in terms of grant funding generated by the taxes levied on recreational marijuana sales. However, the City can choose to ban the sale of it as well, but they do have to allow for individual use.
If Woodlake chooses to allow recreational marijuana, the City can choose to levy their own tax on marijuana sales on top of the State tax. But the tax would have to placed on the ballot. If the City chooses to go that route then they need to draft language that details the scope of the tax for the ballot and have it submitted to the Tulare County Elections Office by late June. The City can choose to tax sales, or they can levy a tax based on square footage of the building which the City prefers.
“The reason we like square footage is because you can’t hide it. It’s there or its not,” Lara added.
As well, allowing sales would require a revision of the City’s zoning ordinance that would dictate where dispensaries can be located in addition to a host of other requirements. The change in zoning can be specific to marijuana dispensaries. City staff noted that they could write in language that could give them access to the dispensaries books, security cameras, etc.
According to Waters a revision of the City’s zoning ordinance is a 90 day process that would begin this month and end in late August or early September.
Staff and council agreed that if they allowed for dispensaries and marijuana nurseries that they would have to provide their own source of water and they would not be allowed to hook onto city connections.