Central California

Kern County voters to decide on sales tax increase, lifting marijuana ban

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to put a sales tax increase and two measures regarding marijuana dispensaries before voters in unincorporated Kern County this November.

The first measure will ask voters to raise the sales tax rate by 1 percent in the unincorporated county areas, from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent.

The other two measures, which qualified for the ballot through citizens’ initiatives, will ask voters to overturn the county’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries, though they differ in how dispensaries would be regulated. One calls for state rules to govern local dispensaries; the other specifically states how many dispensaries would be allowed in the county and where they could be located.

The supervisors took nearly five hours to discuss all three measures, in addition to taking public comments on the proposed budget for this fiscal year.

They took up the tax issue first, which was proposed by Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who said he needs extra funds to bolster the ranks of his deputies. Without additional funds, he said he will have to shut down narcotics investigation units and shutter substations in areas of the county with low populations.

“This is a critical time in our county, and this is a critical time in law enforcement,” he said. “We are at a point where I don’t know if we have any other options.”

A crowd of supporters, mostly members of the county’s public safety departments, came out to speak in favor of the tax increase.

Deputies who patrol rural locations alone, like in Boron, testified that their closest backup is around 20 minutes away, leaving them vulnerable if anything should go wrong.

The supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of allowing the tax increase on the ballot. The measure needed a supermajority to pass.

Supervisor David Couch was the lone “no” vote.

“I don’t feel like we, as a board, have done as much as we can do before we turn to the voters,” Couch said.

Supervisors did add language to the measure requiring a five-member citizens oversight committee to advise the board on how the projected $35 million raised by the tax increase would be spent.

Money from the sales tax will be put into the county’s general fund to be delegated by the supervisors.

Currently, nearly 60 percent of the county’s general fund goes to public safety. Following that formula, the new sales tax would generate nearly $20 million for public safety, along with $6 million for parks and $680,000 for the county libraries, according to the County Administrative Office.

The funds would be legally required to be spent only in the unincorporated county areas.

The tax will not overlap with the city of Bakersfield’s proposed 1 percent sales tax increase, or the sales tax in any other incorporated part of the county.

Following their vote on the sales tax increase, supervisors went straight into a discussion on allowing the two medical marijuana dispensary measures onto the ballot.

The marijuana measures differ in how they would overturn the current ban. If both are approved by voters in November, whichever measure receives the most votes will become law.

Jeff Jarvis and Heather Epps brought forward the first marijuana initiative, with attorney Phil Ganong drafting the language. It would replace the county’s ban on medical marijuana dispensaries and replace it with current state regulations regarding dispensaries.

The second initiative, proposed by attorney Ben Eilenberg, would also overturn the state ban but would allow only 35 medical marijuana dispensaries, which would have to be located in two zones along Interstate 5.

Since both measures qualified for the ballot through citizens’ initiatives, supervisors didn’t have the option to reject the measures outright. They could either adopt one, put both measures on the ballot or request an impact report on both measures.

County Counsel Mark Nations told supervisors that adopting one measure over the other would likely lead to a legal challenge because both measures had come to the board on equal terms. And ordering a report on the measures would only have delayed them from being adopted or put on the ballot at a later date.

They voted 4-0 in favor of placing the measures on the ballot, with Supervisor Leticia Perez leaving the meeting before discussion of the issue took place.

Perez has been charged by the Kern County District Attorney with two misdemeanors related to conflict of interest violations with the marijuana industry. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Earlier this year she said she would abstain from all votes related to marijuana.

This year’s general election will take place Nov. 6. The county could be a much different place on Nov. 7.

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