Bangor councilor seeking medical marijuana fees

Posted Oct. 28, 2010, at 11:08 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — City councilors wrestled with particulars for months before passing an amendment to the city’s land development code that allows for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities in certain areas and with certain restrictions.

At no time during those discussions were fees brought up, but now one councilor wants to revisit the idea.

Cary Weston has requested an agenda item for the council’s government operations committee next week that would assess a fee of $10,000 to $15,000 on either a dispensary or grow house.

Weston said because medical marijuana facilities are nonprofits, Bangor cannot generate any revenue from having them in the city.

“These are businesses with a singular purpose, not a general purpose. How can you put a real-time cost to the city on these facilities?” he said.

Weston said the prospect of levying a fee on medical marijuana businesses fits into the council’s goal of trying to broaden municipal revenue without increasing taxes. Councilors have talked about a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program as a way to effectively tax the many nonprofits that call Bangor home.

Weston said if he had been on the council several years ago, he would have proposed fees for methadone clinics as well.

“If this is the model we’re told we have to go by, we need to have some controls in place,” he said.

Mainers passed an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana laws last fall that allows for nonprofit dispensaries, prompting municipalities to adopt moratoriums to figure out how to handle such clinics. When the state approved eight clinics in July, cities and towns began adopting ordinances. Some proposed fees to go along with those ordinances.

Bangor is not alone in seeking additional fees. Nearby Hermon recently proposed an initial fee of $10,000 and a $5,000 annual renewal fee for a cultivation facility. Other communities have suggested much smaller fees ranging from $50 to $500.

Dispensaries and grow houses already must pay an annual fee of $15,000 to the state.

City attorney Norman Heitmann said that, by law, fees are used to pay for specific services. For instance, when the city issues a building permit, the fee typically covers the cost of an inspection conducted by a municipal staff member.

“Fees can’t turn into taxes,” he said.

Heitmann questioned the legality of Hermon’s proposed fee and said it could be struck down if challenged in court, even though town leaders have said the fee is justified.

“I think there are some communities that are thinking, ‘How can we find a way to make this not happen?’” he said.

Northeast Patients Group has been selected to operate four of the state’s initial eight clinics, in the Augusta, Bangor, Portland and Thomaston areas.

The company has not contacted the city since August, Heitmann said, but CEO Becky DeKeuster said this week that Bangor is very much in the mix.

“It’s the service and population center, and it’s where the patients are,” she said. “I’m glad the city took its time. The [ordinance] is reasonable for us. Our next step is to start identifying possible locations.”

DeKeuster said the most probable timeline is to open a clinic in the Bangor area by next spring. Bangor also is in play for a cultivation facility, she said, but Northeast Patients has other options as well. She said it’s likely that one grow house would serve all four of her company’s clinics across the state.

Hermon Town Manager Clint Deschene told the Bangor Daily News earlier this month that Northeast Patients has been talking with the town about developing a marijuana cultivation facility in a warehouse owned by Dysart’s.

DeKeuster said she understands why some communities are talking about fees, but she said if they are prohibitively high, it would affect Northeast Patients’ plans.

“I think what folks will see is that our operations have a much lower impact than they are imagining,” she said. “But there is still an unknown factor in Maine.”

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