JOHN DAY – The dialogue was spirited as about 20 elected officials and city representatives from several counties gathered to hash out priority needs last week at the Grant County Regional Airport.
The Sept. 10 event, a forum marking City Hall Week, touched on a range of issues – from taxation to transportation and roads – that the League of Oregon Cities is addressing in a slate of proposals for the next Legislature.
The city forum was hosted by the City of John Day and the League of Oregon Cities, and moderated by John Day Mayor Ron Lundbom. State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, answered questions and offered his perspective on the chances for specific legislative efforts.
None of the issues sparked more frustration in the room than the loosening of marijuana laws. The state in 2013 set up a licensing system for medical marijuana dispensaries, but allowed local jurisdictions to adopt moratoriums on the businesses until next May. The idea was to allow time for more details to be worked out.
The League is proposing changes to clarify and enhance public safety and local control, with specific calls for expanded background checks for dispensary workers, safety regulations for hash oil and extract manufacturing, and clearer direction for cities on how to zone dispensaries.
John Day Police Chief Richard Gray spoke against any action that will increase people’s access to marijuana.
“It’s already accessible – If they want to buy it, they’re going to buy it,” he said.
He and others said marijuana already overburdens the local public safety agencies.
Gray said the drug takes a toll on youth, schools, and social services, and stretched police agencies are called into deal with the resulting problems.
Police find their hands are tied in many ways when it comes to marijuana, however, as the state law protects information about the growers and card-holders.
Gray questioned why, if the drug is grown for medical reasons, marijuana wouldn’t be distributed through pharmacies instead of dispensaries.
Officials asked if the League would back them up if they adopt total bans on dispensaries and then get sued.
Participants in the discussion said they expect Oregon to legalize recreational marijuana next.
Ferrioli, stressing he voted against decriminalization and the medical marijuana program, noted that “if it weren’t for Senate Republicans, there wouldn’t have been a moratorium for cities and counties to consider.”
He said the opponents of pot have a tough battle, with some 58 percent of the state polled in favor of legalization.
“The urban population thinks there’s nothing wrong with marijuana,” he said.
Ferrioli said he believes medical marijuana will disappear once the recreational use is legalized.
He said he and other legislators will try to help cities get the zoning tools they need to manage the issue.
He also said it would be better if Oregon could wait and watch other states’ experiences to see what lessons might be learned.
He said he hopes he never hears anyone cast recreational marijuana as a money-maker.
“There’s no way you can ever get enough revenue to pay for the impact on people’s lives,” he said. “There are better ways for our communities to raise money than peddling dope.”
Peter Hall, candidate for House District 60, was the lone voice on the other side of the issue, offering what he called the Libertarian perspective. He said “marijuana is for some people a very good medicine to have.”
Hall said pot is a concern but probably not as bad as alcohol, and the answer is to have strict limits and controls.
However, Francis Kocis blamed the state for allowing medical marijuana to run rampant, and leaving the local communities to deal with it.
On another law enforcement issue, city officials said they want to see better funding for 911 centers.
Ferrioli urged them to revisit what’s happening with the current 911 money. He blamed Democratic legislators for repeated raids on those funds to bolster other, more high-profile needs like education, saying “It’s for the kids.”
Baker City and John Day officials said they are subsidizing their 911 centers with city funds, transfers they can ill afford.
On transportation issues, Dave Holland, John Day public works director, questioned where small cities will come up with the money to at least maintain roads. He and other city officials said it’s increasingly difficult to keep pace as they grapple with deteriorating roads, shrinking funds and scant opportunity to increase revenue.
He suggested legislators also need to look at bicycle issues, noting cyclists are the only highway and road users who aren’t paying into the system. Motorists, ATV users, even boaters pay licensing fees and gas taxes, he said.
“There’s no money coming from them, although there’s a lot of money begins spent specifically on their behalf,” he said of cyclists.
Ferrioli noted that the Democratic urban areas continue to set priorities that aren’t in sync with the rural areas. He said not to expect any traction in the Legislature on bicycle taxation.
A League proposal to increase the statutory “Small City Allotment” could fare better. The proposal would boost the fund from $1 million to $5 million a year, split between the Oregon Department of Transportation and the cities’ share of the trust fund.
The amounts wouldn’t be significant to the larger jurisdictions, but would be a huge help to small cities, supporters said.
Other transportation proposals being considered by the league include an increase in the state gas tax of 5 cents per gallon, indexing the gas tax to the consumer price index, and an increase in license plate fees, with light trailers added to the taxable list.
Another issue, incorporating vehicle miles traveled in user fee calculations, drew no support in the room. It is seen as punitive for rural residents, who must drive more miles in to conduct routine business.