The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously June 27 to adopt a $377 million budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year and approved various changes to bolster enforcement against illegal marijuana grows.
“I can tell you that the community wants rapid response. The community wants this issue dealt with,” 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said about marijuana enforcement during the meeting.
The county’s code enforcement unit was set to undergo a significant reorganization as of July 1 after the board voted June 27 to give it new and speedier enforcement powers, three more officers and a new county department to call home.
Compared to the thousands of marijuana farms in the county — legal or not — that the unit is tasked with enforcing, Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Conner said the five code enforcement officers his office hopes to have in place will only be able to do so much.
“If we’re working as hard as we can for the rest of the season, we’re — as you calculated out — going to hit less than 1 percent of the illegal grows,” Conner said to the board. “We just don’t have the resources right now to do much more than that.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn equated the county’s efforts to address the longstanding black market to “shoveling sand against the ocean.”
To give the low-staffed unit more enforcement power, the board also voted June 27 to adopt an ordinance that would reduce the amount of time it takes for the county to take actions against residents violating county code from at least 75 days to just 10 days.
The ordinance also increases the maximum fine for code violations from $10,000 total to $10,000 per day for a maximum of $900,000.
The board had stated in previous meetings that the ordinance is a response to marijuana farmers who took advantage of the lengthy code enforcement process in order to harvest their crop before the county could take action.
The changes will not be limited to marijuana cultivation, however, but to all code enforcement violations including illegal dumps, unsafe structures and abandoned vehicles, among others.
Fennell said the changes to the code enforcement unit were a first step to address a historical issue and said she did not think it was helpful for Bohn to say the county’s efforts were not going to make an impact.
“We have to do what we can to get it done and this is a very good first step,” she said.
The board also directed the code enforcement unit to self-initiate investigations into marijuana farms as well as for abandoned vehicles rather than waiting for a member of the public to complain about them as is currently the practice.
Conner said their officers normally go out with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers and sheriff’s office personnel when they inspect marijuana grows. Similar to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s inspection of Sproul Creek in southern Humboldt County in 2015, Conner said he had a similar idea of focusing on specific watersheds.
Fennell cautioned Conner about that approach as she said some “very small people were caught up in that dragnet” and said that the community’s main concern is about the large illegal grows.
“Even though you’re not asking the community to complain anymore, [I would hope] you would take their feelings into consideration and their concerns into consideration,” Fennell said.
Tom Grover of Redway also spoke against the regional enforcement approach, saying that state regulators in the Sproul Creek inspections were using an inspection warrant in an attempt to later prosecute residents of criminal charges.
“If you don’t get the big grows and you just focus on one community, you not only damage that community and your own credibility, you don’t handle the problem,” Grover said.
To clarify the code enforcement unit’s role in marijuana enforcement, county counsel Jeffrey Blanck said the unit serves warrants to inspect a farm’s compliance with the county’s civil marijuana rules and not for criminal offenses, which he said is the job of the sheriff’s office. Blanck said code enforcement officers are often accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy for safety purposes when inspecting grows.
“But we’re not putting blindfolds on the sheriff, either,” Blanck said. “There is a distinct separation. But it’s the same information.”
The board also voted to relocate the code enforcement unit from the county counsel’s office to the Planning and Building Department.
Conner said the majority of his unit’s cases come from the planning department, which also oversees the permitting of marijuana farms and businesses.
The reorganization will also have the code enforcement unit receive all complaints starting in the fourth quarter of this year, Conner said, which would get rid of the current system in which complaints are referred to the unit by the county’s planning department, environmental health division and sheriff’s office.
The board 4-0 to approve these changes, with 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson absent from the meeting.
$377 million budget
The board adopted a $377 million budget June 27 for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which began on Saturday.
The budget is about $3.1 million higher than was originally forecast at the start of this month because more marijuana tax and sales tax revenues is expected to come into the county coffers.
The county Administrative Office states the county will receive $2.6 million more revenue from the county’s medical marijuana cultivation tax, Measure S, bringing the total expected tax revenue to $4.8 million. The county is expecting another $370,000 from Measure Z sales tax revenue on top of the $11.4 million it forecast earlier this month.
The board voted June 27 to use these extra funds to bring county facilities into compliance with federal disability access laws as ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice, hire sheriff’s deputies to address illegal marijuana cultivation, fund to childhood trauma prevention and treatment services, fund a study to improve law enforcement radio systems and to improve roads and county facilities to name a few.
The adopted budget includes over $385,100 to fund three new code enforcement officers.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.