The real issue behind SO funding and the marijuana moratorium

The Saguache County Commissioners’ letter to the editor in this week’s issue needs to be addressed here because of the “false” statements charge claimed against articles which ran in the Center Post-Dispatch over the past three months.

This is not the first time commissioners have made this claim. And while some points do need clarification (not a “retraction”), the letter itself spreads even more misinformation that must be addressed in order to prevent exactly what commissioners are objecting to in their letter (see article, on page 4A). But here we intend to focus on the present crisis precipitated by the county’s approval of some 24 marijuana operations, with four additional approvals pending.

When laying out terms in any valid argument, those making their points are required to stay on topic and to avoid comparisons and analogies that are not truly representative of the point they are trying to prove. Any deviation from this standard is referred to as evading the (real) issue or arguing beside the point.

Funding the jail, and indirectly law enforcement officials responsible for arrests and inmate supervision, is mandatory per state statute, and this is an important observation. But it is only part of the equation and cannot be treated separately from the real issue.

The real issue is this: Saguache County is the second largest rural county in Colorado currently allowing unlimited marijuana grows, following Pueblo County. Residents here have already experienced the undesirable changes in the county that have resulted from this influx of largely out-of-state growers and the workers they employ. The Marijuana Enforcement Division can address violations of state law by legal growers, but this still leaves local deputies to contend with the medical growers and illegal grows.

And the “come one, come all” attitude of the county has only encouraged illegal operators to either relocate and begin their grows or remain in business without registering with county and state. These illegal grows are so numerous that one Drug Enforcement Agency official says it would be impossible to unearth all of them and shut them down.

In addition, the county’s expansion of its regulations to allow medical growers to cultivate up to 96 plants at one time, now forbidden by new state regulations, has only made it more difficult for code enforcement to keep track of who is growing what, for whom and to then determine if these plants have been removed in compliance with the new laws.

It seems ironic that, as many residents have objected, those coming in from outside of Colorado now have more rights per the county’s current marijuana regulations than lifetime residents of the county. And this is more ironic still when one considers the prevailing suspicion and distrust of “outsiders” previous commissioners and others in Saguache County government have demonstrated for years in their hiring and appointment practices.

But then the almighty buck can erase a lot of things.

In their grand scheme to enrich the county by cultivating cannabis, commissioners neglected to conduct cost projections and county impact projections to gauge just how much it would cost infrastructure-wise to support the cultivation venture and its unintended consequences.

Already they were aware, however, that the present jail was in desperate need of replacement. And while they claim to have increased the sheriff’s department funding by $90,000 since 2015, it seems to escape them that the need for this funding came following the legalization of marijuana.

Actually, however, the county was only playing catch-up where sheriff department salaries and other funding was concerned. For years, during every budget cycle, former sheriff Mike Norris pleaded with commissioners for additional funding to no avail. While certain commissioners blame Sheriff Dan Warwick for failing to keep deputies on staff, Norris suffered similar difficulties, and for many of the same reasons. As Warwick has observed, no one can blame law enforcement officers for leaving the county when the pay here is not competitive.

Why is the pay not competitive? Saguache County is a Class V county, a rating ranking it at the second to last category for pay regarding elected officials (and deputies). Chris Johnson, executive director for Colorado County Sheriffs, says this category could be raised by an appeal from county commissioners if property values increased, building starts were up and economic activity blossomed.

Saguache residents have indicated they do not want all the economic activity to center around cannabis and even feel the emphasis on cannabis will stifle any other kind of meaningful development. The property tax issue continues to be a problem and with cannabis growers as neighbors, it is difficult to see how property values could increase. Over the years a succession of commissioners has refused to consider meaningful economic development in the county and have ignored problems with the assessor’s office. Those chickens have now come home to roost.

So it doesn’t really matter whose pay is compared to whose in these circumstances; the only option now for this longstanding problem is to relieve law enforcement of at least some of its burdens by placing a moratorium on marijuana cultivation. A specific strategy for addressing illegal grows needs to be developed and marijuana regulations need to be examined and revised. A sales tax to fund law enforcement backed by commissioners this year would show they are serious about the many safety concerns voiced by citizens.

We leave it to commissioners to explain to Saguache County residents how their $674,000 increased fund balance over the past two years does not justify help for law enforcement or, for that matter, the county assessor’s office. But then those citizens asking about budget totals are often told that the figures are not reliable or could change.

For years it has been suggested by various individuals with solid financial backgrounds that the county conduct a forensic audit to remedy this persistent problem. Perhaps now is the time to push forward with this plan.

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