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For the past few weeks Calaveras County has felt like a slow-moving train wreck.
There’s a tremendous amount of noise in any train wreck, but in this case no one is listening. Nor do they seem to comprehend that the this train wreck is the future of Calaveras County.
The train left the station in May 2016 when the Board of Supervisors passed an “Urgency Ordinance” with a vote of 4 to 1. The ordinance sets out rules and regulations for the legal cultivation of cannabis.
By November, the four county supervisors who voted “yes” were out of a job. Two lost in recall elections and the other two declined to seek reelection.
The result is a Board of Supervisors with no institutional memory and, except for one member, very little practical experience as elected officials. They think the red handle in the engine cab is the brake, but it’s actually the accelerator.
The opinions of Calaveras residents are no less head-spinning. Measure C, which would have taxed the cannabis industry, passed in November with a 68 percent margin. On the same ballot, voters defeated Measure D, which would have set permanent regulations.
I also worked though my own change of heart. Although I believe that simple possession of cannabis should be decriminalized, I voted against Proposition 64, which legalized recreational use in California.
On the same ballot I voted for Measure D. My thinking was that if Prop 64 failed, then a cannabis management plan would be unnecessary. If it passed, the cultivation plan would provide an orderly mechanism to manage growth, provide for strict environmental protections, and run the illegal growers out.
Any discussion about cannabis cultivation in Calaveras must include the economic impacts on a county that is among the poorest in the state. A recent study by the University of the Pacific forecast the financial impact for 2016.
Their conclusions are jaw dropping:
• Sales value (gross): $251 million
• Direct employment (jobs): 2,605
• Direct labor income (wages): $148 million
When the potential sales from local stores and contractors are added, the financial impact for one year of cannabis cultivation rises to $339 million.
If a complete ban on cannabis is approved by the Board of Supervisors here’s the likely outcome:
• The $339 million in positive cash flow for the local economy, along with tax revenues, and 2,605 jobs forecast, leaves Calaveras.
• Calaveras will be forced to refund the $7 million dollars that has been collected from growers. The County has already spent $3.7 million dollars on permit processing, inspections, and regulations, and It has borrowed additional money from the General Fund for law enforcement to eradicate illegal grows, promising to pay it back from future taxes on growers.
• Because there are no surplus funds in the county budget, the $3.7 million dollars already spent can only come from the General Fund.
• According to Administrative Officer Tim Lutz, the General Fund is facing a $5.1 million structural deficit for the current fiscal year. The General Fund can only be balanced by eliminating programs and cutting staff — real people who work to keep our local government functioning.
• Growers who applied, paid fees, and invested millions for infrastructure will likely sue Calaveras County to recoup their losses. Given the chaos of the board’s decisions, the growers will present a very strong case. The payout for litigation and settlements could run to tens of millions of dollars and exceed the county’s liability insurance. The insurers could cite the incoherence of the board’s decisions as grounds for refusing to pay the claims.
• Either the county will float a bond to pay the claims, forcing property owners to pay interest and principle for decades, or worse, file for municipal bankruptcy. In that case, every property owner will see the value of real estate decline, every business will watch their bottom line shrink, and every economically challenged person will find little or no help at the county level.
That’s the train wreck no one is hearing.
If you care about the future of Calaveras County, if you don’t want to see your taxes wasted on cleaning up a train wreck that can be avoided, and if you don’t want to watch the value of your home or earnings from your business plummet, you have one choice.
Pick up the phone, call your county supervisor and tell him to stop the runaway train.
Make sure he understands you will not sit still while they destroy Calaveras County.
And be sure to tell them that, come next election, you will never forget who was driving the train.
David Vassar is a writer and resident of Calaveras County.