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El Centro Gives Final Approval to Cannabis Ordinance
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El Centro Gives Final Approval to Cannabis Ordinance

EL CENTRO — In a close vote, the El Centro City Council gave final approval May 5 to an ordinance to open two brick-and-mortar cannabis dispensaries in the city of El Centro.

The second reading of the ordinance was approved 3-2, with council members Cheryl Viegas-Walker and Jason Jackson voting against the measure. The item was pulled from the consent agenda and voted on individually. A preliminary approval, which also garnered a split vote, was given two weeks earlier.

The ordinance goes into effect 30 days after the May 5 final approval.

“The next step right now is we are working on the implementation process. We are working on the application and their rating criteria. We are also trying to determine the fees that will apply to the application and those would be based on the recovery of staff time,” said El Centro Community Development Director Norma Villicaña, whose department will oversee the permitting of cannabis businesses.

“We are scheduled to go before the El Centro City Council on June 2 to present the fees and hopefully get their approval. Once we do that we can continue with the process. Should the council accept the application process criteria and fees, then we can start implementing the process and open the application period,” she said.

Villicaña said she thinks the city can open the application period by July or August. “Then we will review, rate and rank applications and a recommendation will be made to the city manager as to the top-two applications. We have a plan we just need to come up with rating criteria,” she said.

The ordinance allows for two physical storefronts in El Centro. These storefronts would be allowed to operate delivery services under the umbrella of their license, Villicaña said.

She explained the city will not be offering a permit to have delivery-only dispensaries, as was done in the city of Calexico.

Unlicensed Dispensary Owner Addresses City

Peter Gutierrez, owner of Qwest for Fire, a mobile cannabis dispensary in El Centro, pleaded with council members to grant him a license to operate.

“Since COVID started, other states like Colorado are turning more to delivery services instead of having a walk-in store. Please reconsider your ordinance because of what has happened with COVID,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez told council members that if El Centro were to open a physical location it would likely have to bring in an out-of-town corporation when there are already more than a dozen mom-and-pop mobile cannabis-delivery businesses operating without a license in El Centro.

Mayor Efrain Silva explained to Gutierrez the council had just voted on the ordinance, but he would be willing to talk more about this specific matter in the future.

“At this time, all the applications will be treated the same, unless City Council decides to give local preference,” Villicaña said during a follow-up interview when asked about Gutierrez’s corporate ownership concerns.

She was also asked about how the city intends to deal with the claim of so many unlicensed pot shops operating in the city. “It is hard to enforce illegal delivery dispensaries unless you catch them in the act. It takes up a lot of resources,” she said.

Villicaña explained city officials are unsure of how much El Centro will profit in its new venture.

“It’s hard to estimate how much money the city is going to be making because we are only going to charge sales tax, not an excise tax (additional tax approved by voters). … Calexico and Imperial County did approve an excise tax for their cannabis dispensaries,” she said.

City Holds Budget Workshop

During a budget workshop for the upcoming fiscal 2020-2021 year starting July 1, Finance Director Richard Romero gave a PowerPoint presentation to City Council members.

Romero proposed a budget to accomplish the city’s strategic plan goals involved transportation and mobility, safe neighborhoods, recreation and lifelong learning, business development/city beautification and resource sustainability.

Among the top budget items were funding for streets and roads, the water plant and the wastewater plant.

The $13.9 million wastewater treatment plant includes funding for a southern pump station design and construction.

The $3.1 million water treatment plant includes repairs to the raw water ponds.

This story is featured in the May 14, 2020 e-Edition.

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