Solar power, marijuana ballot question discussed
MONTE VISTA— The Monte Visa City Council held a work session on Tuesday evening, July 18, to discuss joining a proposed solar garden that was presented at their July 6 meeting and to make decisions on the details of the ballot question regarding marijuana sales and grows within the city that voters will see this November. City Manager Forrest Neuerburg facilitated the work session with all councilors present except Councilor Jason Lorenz.
John Hereford with Oakleaf Energy Partners, who had presented at the July 6 meeting, was not present at the work session, but the councilors and Neuerburg discussed the pros and cons of joining the solar garden. The pros were “no upfront costs to us,” Neuerburg stated, adding the city would also be using locally sourced energy and confirming Councilor Joe Schlabach’s statement about helping to create local jobs, although he noted it would only be a few jobs in Alamosa to sustain the garden once construction was completed.
Neuerburg stated although the city would make some money back in rebates from Xcel, the amount is not very large and it might be a complicated process to get those rebates. Xcel has also been implying they will be putting in more panels themselves to meet a commitment that a percentage of their energy comes from green sources, he added. Councilor Matthew Martinez added that doing a budget amendment in the middle of the year when the council and city have recently been seriously discussing cutbacks would not be a good idea. Martinez emphasized all parties with a stake in the city budget should be encouraged to attend the budget discussions the city has in the fall instead of “trickling in throughout the year” to avoid budget issues and inconsistencies. Martinez also stated green energy improvements should be made by Xcel within the city limits to more directly benefit the city, “If we’re gonna do it; let’s do it here.”
“Wouldn’t we have to front the costs of the panels, then?” countered Councilor Carol Schroeder.
She was answered by Neuerburg; “Yes, but we will see more credits immediately on our bill,” explaining it would be more efficient than a rebate process. Neuerburg also cautioned against using a third party company, citing the struggles the city has had finding representatives from the company that did energy-efficiency renovations to city hall. The company has since shut down and its employees disbanded and nobody is accountable for any mistakes or alterations in their work.
Schlabach emphasized the potential benefits to putting panels at the Ski-Hi complex, as it is not an energy efficient building, especially in the wintertime. “There are projects that are worth the upfront costs, we just need to find them,” he added. Neuerburg agreed Ski-Hi would benefit from solar; they would be selling energy back in the summer but would use all of it in the winter.
Schroeder expressed caution at how much the city spends on local projects, “We need to be careful with how much money we spend on something like this because a. We don’t have the money and b. There is a long list of wants and especially needs ahead of that.”
Mayor Debbie Garcia added County Commissioner Karla Shriver has been looking into a grant process for renovations to Ski-Hi and asked Neuerburg to explore if solar power could fall into that grant.
Marijuana ballot question
The councilors moved to discussing the wording of the ballot questions for marijuana operations and the potential tax rates. They first discussed dividing marijuana into multiple ballot questions for medical, retail, grow, testing, infused products and other categories as separate questions or including them all in one. Martinez explained it was the preference of the planning and zoning commission to include them all in one question, which Neuerburg and Schroeder agreed to as well. Neuerburg added, “It’s hard to inform the voters in a huge amount of depth about what some of the other products are.”
Schlabach presented a hypothetical scenario in which the variations of marijuana sales were split and some passed and some did not, expressing concern the city would be faced with the same issue “every couple of years,” of residents petitioning the ones which failed onto the ballot or bringing them before council one by one. The councilors agreed with the idea of including all the marijuana facilities in one question, with the taxing question separate, as required by TABOR.
Schroeder asked “What I want to know is how the dispensaries are even making money?” Neuerburg added the viability of a retail marijuana business in Monte Vista is a good question, adding towns like Trinidad and Antonito can sustain more because they are closer to the New Mexico border and Monte Vista’s central location in the Valley might not make it possible to have many successful ones. Martinez and Garcia agreed more than one retail operation is not likely to be plausible, but the grow operations would be the biggest source of money. Neuerburg stated marijuana is a “value-added ag product.”
When discussing the taxing question, Martinez brought up the planning and zoning commission’s June 22 meeting with Kiera Hatton, a Pueblo County planning commissioner and the executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Industry Association, who told the commission one of the downsides to a very high tax rate is residents not utilizing the dispensaries and still buying from drug dealers on the street to avoid the taxes. Garcia agreed if marijuana is permitted within the city it should be a source of revenue but added “you have to get drug dealers off the streets so it can’t be too high.”
Schlabach pointed out 18 percent is a good starting point but he wants to see one percent go directly to the Monte Vista Police Department, like the excise tax in Pueblo County goes to CSU Pueblo scholarships. Martinez added an additional one percent should go to the roads, which Garcia corrected should be the capital improvements fund, in the event the city ran into water or sewer line repairs in more dire need than roads, which is not unlikely.
Schlabach expressed concern about a business operating as both a grow and a retail store, questioning how the city would collect the tax revenue from the grow operation. Neuerburg and Garcia confirmed the product would still have to count as a sale from the grow to the retail.
Schlabach asked if the city could raise the tax rate significantly if they wanted to later, which Neuerburg explained wouldn’t be possible with TABOR. The state requires a sales projection, which he plans to set at $500,000 per year, “a good guess because it is an unknown.” If the industry brings in more than that per year, Neuerburg explained, the city would have to take it back to the voters. The city would not see the revenue until their 2019 fiscal year.
The councilors agreed to tax marijuana sales at 18 percent plus an additional one percent excise tax for the MVPD and another one percent excise tax for the capitol improvements fund.
Martinez asked for clarification on the process, asking if the question passes and facilities could open on January 1, 2018 or at least apply for their special review use applications then, would the city still not see the revenue until 2019. Neuerburg stated that was correct but encouraged council to look at including in the question that they could not open until March 1, to give the city more time to prepare. “I still don’t expect it to be a land rush. Most grows are larger, corporate operations, they’re not ‘fly-by-night’ people. They’ll have their money laid out,” Neuerburg explained, adding the legitimate businesses will already know if they are willing to work in Monte Vista and will be prepared to follow all procedures.
Schlabach asked if the city could regulate serving sizes on edible products, which Garcia pointed out wouldn’t make much sense because people would just come back and buy one every 30 minutes or so. Schlabach clarified he wasn’t as worried about the quantity as much as the serving size, he has read too many horror stories about people who believe the entire candy bar is the serving, not an individual piece, then end up sick. Neuerburg stated he will ask the city attorney to better explore how the city could do that, but agreed with the principle of his concern. Neuerburg also pointed out the volume of alcohol sales for the city’s population is actually larger than Alamosa.