Benton City could begin issuing business licenses to marijuana retailers, processors and growers next week under a controversial ordinance headed to the city council.
The council will consider passing the ordinance on a second reading when it meets at 7 p.m. April 19. The meeting will be held at the Benton City Community Center, 806 Dale Ave., to accommodate crowds.
The council narrowly passed the ordinance on a 3-2 vote when it came up for a first reading on April 5. David Sandretto, Vanessa Coates and Jake Mokler supported legalization. Lisa Stade and Mary Lettau opposed.
If it passes, the ordinance will take effect in five business days and will allow marijuana businesses to operate under certain conditions, chiefly in Benton City’s commercial and industrial zones along I-82.
Benton City would be the second municipality in Benton County to allow marijuana businesses under Initiative 502, which legalized the use of marijuana by those age 21 and over and promised to deliver fresh taxes to state and local governments.
37% state excise tax
6.5% state sales tax
2.4% local sales tax
0.48% B&O tax
Marijuana advocates say excise taxes, sales taxes and other fees could bring hundreds of thousands of new tax dollars to Benton City’s coffers.
In Prosser, home to Benton County’s two legal retailers, Altitude has paid $1.7 million in excise taxes since 2014 and $118,000 in March alone, according to 502data.com, an industry website that tracks financial data. That means at least $41,000 in local sales tax revenue, based on a 2.4 percent local sales tax rate.
Since 2014, Benton County marijuana retail sales total nearly $5.4 million — about half the total marijuana-related activity, which also includes growing and processing. That translates to nearly $2.5 million in excise taxes, according to 502data.com.
The state doesn’t share its marijuana excise tax revenues with local municipalities. Several Mid-Columbia public officials have cited that lack of revenue sharing as one of the reasons for their moratoriums.
Another Prosser retailer, The Bake Shop, opened in July 2015 and has paid $217,000 in excise taxes so far, including $50,000 in March.
Franklin County’s lone retailer, Lucky Leaf, operated briefly in Pasco before local officials shut it down. In two months of operation, it paid nearly $46,000 in excise taxes.
Much of Benton City would be off-limits to marijuana retailers because of 1,000-foot setbacks around schools, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers, parks, transit centers and libraries.
Those setbacks mean marijuana businesses would be relegated to areas near I-82 and in small pockets to the west and north. A modest 100-foot setback requirement for residential zones and churches has stirred some fears that marijuana businesses will sit uncomfortably close to homes.
We’re trading the safety of our community for an unknown amount of money
Peggy Higham, Benton City resident
Peggy Higham, a 25-plus year resident who raised five children in Benton City and served on the Kiona-Benton City School Board, has emerged as the leading opponent.
She penned a flier encouraging opponents to express their displeasure with the mayor and city council and is marshaling opponents to pack the council meeting.
Marijuana jeopardizes public safety for the uncertain promise of new tax revenue, Higham said.
“We’re trading the safety of our community for an unknown amount of money,” Higham said.
Supporter Steve Lee of Green2Go Collective Gardens said Benton City has the potential to throw a lifeline to his lawful, taxpaying medical marijuana business, based in Finley.
The 2,500-member Green2Go wants to add recreational sales but faces a shutdown in July if it can’t secure a business license. Benton City is its best option to stay open, said Lee, who runs the member-owned business.
Catering to Tri-City marijuana buyers from a Benton City address is a win for the city’s economy, Lee said.
“Benton City will do at least as much as (Prosser). We’ll have $10- to $15-an-hour jobs and a tax base,” he said.
The Benton City Economic Development Council is officially neutral on the matter.
Benton City will do at least as much as (Prosser). We’ll have $10- to $15-an-hour jobs and a tax base
Steve Lee, Green2Go Collective Gardens
Steve Rouse, a retired middle school teacher and Benton City fire commissioner, said new tax revenue isn’t worth the potential impact on public health and safety.
“I just can’t see it being a positive thing,” he said.
In addition to authorizing marijuana retailers and processors, the Benton City ordinance would embrace indoor grow operations. Indoor cultivation is an energy-intensive proposition.
Benton PUD, which provides electrical service to Benton City, is ready to meet new demand.
“We’re obliged to serve,” said Karen Miller, spokeswoman. “Just like any new large load, we would have the power to serve it.”