Homeless Service Center site, pot growing ordinance considered by supes

Board will reconsider the proposed Southside Road location of homeless facility, debates merits of pot cultivation ordinance

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 22 agreed to reconsider the location of the proposed Homeless Service Center and debated a proposed ordinance to stop the increase of illicit cannabis cultivation, tentatively approving a strict ordinance that bans outdoor growing of marijuana. The discussions were heated and prolonged even as a number of county employees and members of SEIU Local 521 protested their unresolved contract outside, in front of the County Administration building at noon.

Homeless Service Center site questioned

Health & Human Services Agency’s Jim Rydingsword reported that a Community Development Block grant was approved on Sept. 14. The $55,000 to $65,000 fund was authorized for the assessment of the former Southside Road hospital site intended for the construction of the homeless service center.

The action item sought the supervisors’ direction for the use of the center. Rydingsword asked whether the center should remain a winter shelter, as it is now, or become a year-round option.

He reported that in studying the Monterey County shelter operation, officials found that cost and operation would be best run by a nonprofit, not a federal agency.

Clerk/Auditor/Recorder Joe Paul Gonzalez added, “In Monterey County, there’s a strong operator commitment in helping people. A homeless shelter is just the first step. It’s an intervention. They have a lot of services (for the homeless) and within a maximum of 90 days, help them get back on their feet, train them and get them back into the community. The expectation of operators is that (the homeless) don’t hang out (at the shelter) in the day. This is aggressive case management.”

Consequently, Gonzalez recommended, “Instead of a 24/7, 365-day shelter, we need (the county’s homeless center) to be a 24-hour modified operation. Put in the 90 days of aggressive case management and get them back on their feet with skills.”

District 3 Supervisor Robert Rivas noted that it was a “fantastic” program. “But my problem is we don’t have a next step (after setting up the center). This is not only a homeless (issue) but also a community issue.”

Rydingsword replied that “This is a regional approach. San Benito and Monterey counties have homeless service programs and they can share resources. San Benito will add to those resources down the road.”

District 2 Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he worried about “the staffing to fill the needs of the center and the 90-day program and what about at night when some of the homeless need medication?”

District 5 Supervisor Jaime De la Cruz opened the floodgates of debate when he suggested the relocation of the Homeless Service Center’s site.

County Counsel Matthew Granger pointed out, “Relocation isn’t on the agenda.” But with new discussion brewing, allowed relocation to be discussed at a special, 7 p.m. meeting on Sept. 29.

Botelho called for “a point of order” because “the Board has already decided on (the) Southside Road (site). It’s a done deal.”

District 1 Supervisor and Board Chairwoman Margie Barrios agreed with Botelho. But District 4 Supervisor Jerry Muenzer wanted discussion “to bring it back to relocation.” District 3 Supervisor Robert Rivas had the final word: “The decision was made, but we’re going full circle because of public interest. I have no problem revising (the decision).”

Attending the meeting for the first time, Resource Management Agency/Public Works employee Brent Barnes said, “Location is relevant. Let’s move the entire agenda for the next meeting.”

But Rydingsword cautioned, “If we get into complex discussions, we may not be done by next meeting.” Botelho also expressed concern for the block grant’s expiry.

Barrios called for a special meeting for discussions at 7 p.m. on Sept. 29 “to review all other sites considered and allow impacted residents to comment.”

Homeless Center functionality defined

With discussions back on track according to the agenda, the board agreed to “proceed with a 24-hour modified year-round shelter operation.”

De la Cruz said he will “support the concept so long as it (does not take from) general fund money.” Muenzer asked for clarification on “modified 24-hour versus 24-hour only (operation).” Rivas said he was “short on details and what happens if we don’t find an operator?” Botelho reiterated, “What about at night?”

After deliberation, Barrios called it a “year-round (center) but with a program.” De la Cruz agreed, saying it was the “only way it can work.”

The board also authorized the county to seek a qualified operator to run the center and find a builder with public code compliance. Gonzalez estimated it would cost “$1.3 million  to stay on budget” and also said, “an architect is already working on the specs to include, regardless of site, security, privacy issues (also for the whole neighborhood), appropriate parking and where windows should look out.”

Hashing out the hashish issue

Assistant County Counsel Barbara Thompson presented to the board detailed information about marijuana and its quasi-legal status.

She reported that outdoor cultivation of cannabis is prohibited in the county, while noting that indoor cultivation of not more than 12 plants is allowed for a qualified patient (with a valid ID or medical recommendation) or his or her caregiver, with permission. She also revealed that some medical marijuana cultivator businesses may be allowed limited immunity from enforcement.

Thompson also touched on Assembly Bill 266, which would provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the medical marijuana industry; AB 243, which would promulgate standards or regulations regarding medical marijuana cultivation; and Senate Bill 643, which would establish standards for doctors, state agencies and pesticide application. These bills were sent for the governor’s signature on Sept. 11.

The county's attorney also cited from empirical sources that “California is consistently the state with the highest number of outdoor marijuana plants eradicated by law enforcement from 2008 to 2012.” And that the state accounts for “53 to 74 percent of the total marijuana plants eradicated in the U.S.”

She also set it into context with the current drought in the state by noting that “Marijuana is a high water-use plant, (requiring) almost six gallons of water per day per plant.”

Deadlier breed of illicit pot growers

Sheriff's Captain Eric Taylor presented the more perilous aspects of unhindered illicit cannabis cultivation, saying of a recent pot raid in the county, “We found military-grade armaments, body armor, fortified barriers and booby traps (resembling punji sticks in the Vietnam War) they use as deterrents because of the value of the crop.”

He punctuated his remarks by flashing photos of the items covered with corrugated steel and plywood. He said some of the photos were taken in January at the end of Frye Lane.

Taylor admitted that the booby traps may not be common in Northern California and that it was a defensive measure against rival gangs who may steal another’s crop due to losses from police actions. Taylor said that the stamps on the body armor that he showed proved they were recent issues and implied that the aggressive factor of these cannabis growers now in the county could be notches higher than common street thugs.

He also described through photos the cramped, makeshift huts “that 30 to 40 people live in despite the discomfort” with one extension cord to an outside generator for power. There would also be a multiple outlets, forming an octopus fire hazard on top of a usually illegal tap into some unwitting neighbor’s electric power.

The unsanitary condition is heightened by animal remains and droppings (from dogs used as guards), neglected open cans of flammable gasoline, diesel and motor oil (to run the generator) and pesticides and fertilizers (because growing and curing marijuana takes about four months but something could still go wrong).

Taylor added that the illicit cultivator will leave the field as it is after harvesting without cleaning up the mess. He also said some owners don’t realize to whom they’ve leased their land. And because San Benito County is mostly agricultural, it is one of the best places to grow pot. Consequently, Taylor said, assaults on police and even SWAT teams are increasing.  He urged the board to approve an ordinance to curb the rise of illicit cannabis cultivators.

Botelho agreed and shared that other surrounding counties have adopted similar ordinances. Illicit cannabis cultivators "are not the guys you pick up from the True Value Store. They’re professionally-trained elements that never existed in our County.”

Rivas said, “I see a lot of information but how will this ordinance prevent this? I need statistics.”

Granger replied, “(The ordinance) won’t prevent the illegal operations but it will allow indoor cultivation so we don’t ignore the Compassionate Medical Marijuana Use Act; unlike other counties, where even indoor cultivation is banned. Secondly, it bans outdoor cannabis cultivation. Lastly, it allows the county to get cost recovery to clean up the mess and not to punish legal growers in collectives and co-ops.”

Rivas disagreed, saying “This is an evolving debate about a complex topic that we can’t just pass through. If I remember correctly, California was the first state in 1996 to legalize marijuana. It is only a matter of time when there will be an initiative in the state for the recreational use of marijuana. We are at the cusp, whether we like it or not. There is no urgency issue. As for transparency, this is the first time I’m seeing this information. Cannabis cultivation potentially offers revenues from sales tax of marijuana. We need to look at this both politically and economically.”

De la Cruz chimed in, “I can’t support the urgency of it. We need more public insight.”

Botelho said he supported the ordinance, but without the urgency element, which would have put it into effect right away if it had received four-fifths of the vote. "But I strongly believe the ordinance should be in place to regulate marijuana cultivation," he said. "If recreational use passes in Washington or Colorado, we need to limit it; we have to have an oversight. Besides, you can’t just start (a marijuana) business in residential areas just like other businesses. We should stamp out illicit operators and should have done it a long time ago.”

Taylor said, “Even in a collective, where marijuana is legal, people are murdered for the crop. (The crafty illicit operator) can get the right paperwork. Then the legal cultivators can become victims, too. They have AK-47s. Not as much (to use) against the police but against those who would steal the crop from them.”

Barrios summed up, “Our primary industry is food. Are we going to be known as the number one marijuana grower in California? We need the revenue but we also need to do something about the abuse. The police won’t come to (the board) if it was not a problem.”

The public comments that followed highlighted the complexity of the issue. Lawyer James Robert, representing a few collectives, told the board, “You can outlaw marijuana but not get rid of it. You are drafting a law but you have not reviewed it long enough. You can tax, regulate and control marijuana.”

Marijuana grower Aaron Johnson revealed his conservative background as an agriculturalist from a wine-growing family. He said he broke his neck six years ago and swore by the medicinal and commercial values of marijuana. He said he saw no revenue that could go to the sheriff’s office and that his Farm Bureau would like a seat at the discussion table. After a question by Barrios, he said, “I see growers from the black market seeking to be legal. But they’re not stepping out until the law is clear.”

Bill Bennett, a San Jose Collective part-owner for four years,  said, “I don’t have guns or dogs and I grow everything indoors. I pay sales tax, maybe 15 percent. I agree we need to regulate. But you can come see my operations any time.”

Michael Smith of Hollister said he was diagnosed with aggressive cancer in 2012 and needed several surgeries and radiation therapy. He noted how local marijuana dispensary Purple Cross Rx, which was entangled in legal battles with the city of Hollister and was deemed a nuisance business by the county — which cited it for zoning violations — entered into a settlement agreement with the county to allow Purple Cross to operate as a wholesale, rather than retail, operation.

The agreement allows Purple Cross to grow medical cannabis and manufacture edibles and other products. but it may not dispense the products in San Benito County. Thus, Purple Cross Rx must transport the products outside of the county for sales and distribution elsewhere.

The Board ultimately removed the urgency aspect from the ordinance and decided to bring back the issue for more discussions during its Oct. 6 meeting.

Educate or poll for sales tax measure?

Returning from its lunch break, the board tackled the issue of a proposed sales tax measure. County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa said the last time a tax measure was passed in the county was in 1993 with a there-quarters of a cent increase.

County Management Analyst Sara Fontanos gave the board options for public education and outreach or to seek professional polling services. The board ultimately decided on the public information campaign, holding workshops rather than hiring pollsters.

De la Cruz said, “98 percent of my constituents are city folks and many don’t vote.”

Rivas countered, “We do need the sales tax but we don’t need professional poll services. We need to invest on public education.”

Muenzer said, “Will half a cent go to the Highway 25 or other projects? We need the poll to find out what the community will support.”

Botelho agreed with Muenzer, saying, “The sales tax measure needs to be on the ballot. A lot of my constituents don’t even watch our meetings. It’s hard to educate people. But the county is operated with bailing wire and duct tape. In the best of times, we don’t have the resources to service with the same quality as other counties. Our needs list is for some basic things. I don’t want to fall into the trap of promises we can’t keep. Like, this money might just be for maintaining but not extending Highway 25. We do have a quality of life with parks and libraries. But we also need money for county government.”

Botelho also asked where the money would come from if professional pollsters were hired. Granger said the county would pay for it.

Barrios said the board "should go for one percent (after Rivas’ suggestion). Let’s put together a public education plan online and with flyers. Professionals will be hired to send the message in November, December and January.”

County credit cards

Espinosa said county employees usually have no option but to use their personal credit cards for work-related expenses, so a pilot program will be tried to alleviate that. Some employees even file their personal credit cards with the courts to do business, he added.

Fontanos explained that the Cal-Card is issued by the state-run US Bank. The card holder would also have access to a live Web-based program where expense statements can be viewed, approved and then sent to monthly expenses.

It comes in handy for booking hotel rooms or airplane tickets, she said. At the same time, it has strictures which can’t be undone. Items like: cosmetics, wireless transfers, savings bonds and time shares. The program also has flexibility to restrict charges on sporting goods, food and gas charges.

The pilot program allows two groups with spending permission from $1,000 to $3,000 with higher amounts requiring higher authorization. There will be a statement for each card holder and also a monthly check for each.

The general policy can be tightened depending on the department, said Fontanos. So there can be flexibility when, for instance, a social worker needs to remove a battered child from a home and pay for food and clothing.

Fontanos set up the pilot to include 15 staff members from the Health & Human Services Agency, count administration, public works, probation and the Sheriff’s Office. The county administration will administer the card. The program is free but the late payment policy is strict. A second warning takes away the card from a delinquent holder.

The board approved the card, with Muenzer specifying, “Policies must be written before we accept it and the board must review it in six months.”

In other news

The board provided initial authorization for an ordinance related to the small residential rooftop solar energy system review process, which is scheduled to be considered for adoption on Oct. 6.

Non-agenda items

  • Some county employees and members of SEIU Local 521 aired their grievances about their contract with the county by protesting during the lunch hour outside of the meeting.
  • It was reported that 800 young readers attended the Summer Reading Program at the county library, which partnered with the Junior Giants' program. Nearly 600 students completed the program.
  • Barrios presented Mike Rovella, a mail carrier for 46 years, with a certificate of appreciation.
  • De la Cruz presented a proclamation to the San Benito  Health Foundation for Bi-National Health Week in October. It recognized the Foundation’s service to facilitate health care in cooperation with countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. The services included care for, among others, HIV, diabetes and influenza.

Harvey Barkin

Harvey Barkin is a Freelance Journalist and Technical Writer. His stories have appeared in various media.