Quick Take:

The March 23 city council meeting had no shortage of action, including details on a community survey that revealed what residents think of the city, a tax cut for the cannabis industry and a two-year city budget that is in the works.

A look at the topics covered Tuesday night when the Watsonville City Council convened virtually…

Community survey shows gaps in communication, need for more youth programs

Watsonville should prioritize crime, drug and gang prevention, as well as road work and adding amenities to retain Millennial and Gen Z residents, according to recommendations from a firm that surveyed residents on their perceptions of the city.

Consultant GreatBlue Research was tasked with determining how satisfied Watsonville locals are with the city and where improvements should be made. Between Jan. 8 and Feb. 16, residents completed 700 surveys by phone, online, and in person.

While a majority of the survey-takers reported being satisfied with how Watsonville serves the community and with the quality of life in the city, more than four-fifths of respondents said homelessness, drug use, crime and gang activity are “very” or “somewhat” prevalent, according to the data presented to city council Tuesday.

More than 87% of respondents said the city needs to have more youth programs and other efforts aimed at curbing criminal and gang activity, as well as illicit drug use.

Residents also identified several other high-priority items for their city:

  • The development of affordable housing (40.5%)
  • Community policing (21.8%)
  • Maintaining infrastructure and facilities (21.6%), including street repairs, paving and street lighting
  • Job creation and workforce development (19.1%)

Many survey respondents (61.4%) also said they would support an additional sales tax to fund “the improvement and expansion of recreation programs, parks and open spaces,” according to the data. While 37.7% of those surveyed reported walking and biking around Watsonville, a quarter of people said they did not feel safe biking and 22.7% said they did not feel safe walking in the city. Another 42.3% of people surveyed identified traffic safety improvement as a project that is important to invest in.

While a vast majority of people said they were satisfied with the Watsonville Fire Department (55.6% very satisfied, 33.5% somewhat satisfied) and the Watsonville Police Department (34% very satisfied, 48.6% somewhat satisfied), those ages 18 to 34 gave lower ratings to police than older age groups.

Data from the research showed many residents also want more entertainment opportunities, new businesses and reuse of historic downtown buildings.

Cannabis tax cut

Watsonville City Council gave final approval Tuesday night to a change that will slash tax rates for cannabis businesses in half. The decision brings Watsonville’s cannabis tax rate closer to that of other municipalities, but many community members saw the rate cut as only benefitting business owners while eliminating valuable tax revenues that could be used to fund community programs.

The city will be cutting its tax rate on cannabis retailers in half — from 10% to 5% — and also halving its tax on cultivation, from $20 per square foot to $10. Taxes for nursery growers are getting slashed even more drastically, from $20 per square foot to $1. The tax cut proposal was first approved on March 9 in a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Jimmy Dutra and Councilmember Rebecca Garcia opposed.

Watsonville’s cannabis taxes were previously among the highest in the region, according to community development director Suzi Merriam. The city of Santa Cruz and the county tax dispensaries at 7%; Salinas, Marina, Hollister have rates of 5%; and Monterey County has the lowest rates in the region, at 4.5%.

Cultivation taxes are assessed by square footage or based on a percentage of sales, making direct comparison more challenging. But according to Merriam, Watsonville’s rates were “the highest of anywhere around.”

Watsonville set those rates under a voter-approved measure in 2016 — the same ballot on which California voters legalized recreational cannabis via Prop. 64. Some in the community think cutting tax rates is premature and disrespects the wishes of the voters.

The high rates reflected a more cautious approach initially taken by the city compared to some of its neighboring jurisdictions. While allowing six growers to apply for cultivation permits, Watsonville at first prohibited dispensaries from opening within its borders.

Last year, the city reversed course, passing sweeping changes to its cannabis regulations in June that included allowing three dispensary licenses. Those businesses are on course to open later this year, according to Merriam.

Two-year budget in the works

Watsonville is in the process of developing its budget priorities and strategic plan for the next two years and is seeking community input in March and April. Finance Director Cindy Czerwin will be hosting two virtual “community budget 101″ sessions to explain Watsonville’s $160 million annual budget to residents at 5:30 p.m. on March 25 and at 9:30 a.m. on March 27.

In April, Watsonville residents can attend two town halls, on April 22 and 24, to learn more about the budget and offer feedback. Around the same time, city departments will also be finalizing their strategic goals and budget requests, and city council will have a budget workshop on April 10.

On May 25, the city council is set to adopt a strategic plan, and city staff will work on crafting a balanced budget — one that ensures the city does not spend more money than it generates — to present to council in June. The first budget hearing will be on June 6, and city council is scheduled to adopt the final budget at a meeting on June 22.

The new budget will go into effect on July 1.

Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...

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