On Monday, a community forum on the "Effects of Marijuana on Our Community" drew a sparse crowd, but the topic of marijuana still figures largely in the upcoming municipal election.
The communities of Delta and Orchard City are both asking voters to consider taxation of retail marijuana and marijuana products, although the sale of marijuana is not legal in either community.
Delta City Council members explain they're being "proactive." They've also devoted numerous work sessions to discussions about zoning for marijuana establishments.
An ordinance prohibiting the sale of marijuana in the City of Delta has been on the books since 2013. City council members have the authority to reaffirm or repeal that ordinance without a vote of the citizens. But all three city council candidates -- Nathan Clay, Kevin Carlson and Jay Stooksberry -- said they would be reluctant to take that step. They would, however, be willing to put the question before voters.
"I think it's worth re-examining this issue," said Jay Stooksberry. "Marijuana could be a viable source of tax revenue, but I recognize it's a contentious issue. It's worthy of a public vote, and I would respect the results of whatever that would be."
If voters are overwhelmingly in favor of the two taxing questions on the April ballot, Stooksberry said he would consider that an indication that people believe marijuana could be a revenue-generating activity, which means they would be open to supporting marijuana sales if that question appeared on a future ballot.
Kevin Carlson, who is running opposite Stooksberry, said he believes marijuana would likely generate a "meaningful" amount of revenue.
But he also believes it would create additional expenses for policing and enforcement of regulations.
"We need to educate ourselves, for or against," he said. And the decision should be made by the voters. "Three people [council members] should not have the power to allow the sale of marijuana inside city limits."
Nathan Clay is unopposed in his quest for the District #3 council seat. "I personally believe that the tax on marijuana would be a nice injection of cash, but it's a huge hot button issue. It's one I would vote for, but it has to be a mandate of the people. I won't push this through."
During recent interviews, the candidates also voiced their thoughts on city finances. All three have been sitting in on a series of staff/council sessions addressing the city's financial prospects.
"It's pretty grim," Stooksberry said. The options laid out by staff and city council include raising taxes, raising utility rates, cutting services, or a combination of two or more.
"I'm not a big fan of any of those options," Stooksberry said. "Reinstituting property taxes would be a huge detriment to small businesses here in Delta. Increasing utility rates is just passing the buck. Those rates are already inflated because we transfer so much money out of those funds to make up for lack of revenue in the general fund."
The focus of city council should be on increasing the tax base, not the tax burden, he said. The first step is to determine why Delta has earned a reputation as a tough place to start a business. "Whether that's too many regulations or building code enforcement, we need to take a close look at how we can make it easier to set up shop in Delta," he said.
Although he recognizes the city operates on a thin margin, he would also like to see a detailed analysis of overall spending, to see if the city can cut overhead in any areas.
Carlson said he is hopeful Delta Urban Renewal Authority's efforts to attract a riverfront hotel will kickstart efforts to generate more economic activity. He is concerned, however, about subsidizing competition for existing hotels. For that project, and for development in general, Carlson said the playing field has to be level.
He also thinks the city should make the process of starting a business easier. He cited a recent example where an established business owner requested a change in zoning so he could display modular homes on a lot he purchased in North Delta. The zoning change was discussed in work session, but a final decision was tabled for two weeks. "I wish council hadn't hesitated," Carlson said. "That guy stood up and answered every one of the questions they had. I don't think we should string this guy out. That's the first step to countering the perception Delta is not business friendly."
Clay also weighed in on city finances. He said it's alarming to consider that a huge portion of city sales tax revenue comes from one business. On the other hand, municipalities really don't have the ability to create new revenue, other than through taxation.
"I think the answer in the short term is to make it easier for businesses to grow and prosper here.
"I also think we can really start to focus on what we have here, particularly natural resources like theGunnison River and Grand Mesa.
"Do we want to grow or do we want to stick? To me, we have to be able to spin into something new or we will continue to stagnate."
Civic pride lies at the heart of Clay's vision for the city. Due to the nature of his work, Clay said he could live anywhere but he chose to move back to Delta with his family. He's proud to be a resident of Delta, and he wants the community to share that pride. "We have to be superattentive to the way we communicate to employees and to our citizens," he said. "We need to try to be a better version of Delta."
Voters will have an opportunity to ask questions of the candidates at a forum moderated by the Delta Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday, March 1, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Delta Performing Arts Center.
A complete report on the discussion about marijuana, as well as the candidate forum, will be published in the March 7 edition.