City mulling 30k licence for cannabis retailers

Prince Albert city council sits in session. -- Herald file photo.

Municipal administrators have been sent back to the drawing board following a marathon city council debate over licence fees and operation hours for Prince Albert’s two incoming retail cannabis stores.

After 57 minutes and five seconds of rigorous discussion, council approved three motions that could see the initial one-time licensing fees placed at $30,000 per business, with operation hours limited from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The motions also mean the cost of the annual renewal fee could change if the owner sells the license. The city’s planning and development department will be responsible for assessing all three proposals and reporting back to council on their feasibility.

The issue generated passionate and at times heated discussion from a council that’s looking to meet the federal government’s new October 7 legalization date.

“I think what’s on the board is fair,” Mayor Greg Dionne said following Monday’s meeting. “I think the $30,000 is fair strictly because I don’t like administration downgrading our time.”

The original motion called for a one-time business licence fee of $5,000, with an annual renewal cost of $1,500. Administration came up with the number based on the estimated $20,000 worth of staff time accrued by various city departments and employees in preparing for legalization.

The licensing fees are designed to cover those costs, however Dionne and other councillors said the number severely underestimated the total amount of preparation time.

Planning and Development Department director Craig Guidinger told council the number was accurate, but also said they would change it if council directed them to do so.

“To date, we’ve logged the hours of everybody involved, and I think what we’ve presented accurately reflects that,” Guidinger said during Monday’s meeting. “If we get a direction any other than that number, it wouldn’t represent our time, but again, we’d certainly be happy to take our direction and perhaps take some advice from the solicitor or the province if necessary.”

That topic was just the tip of the iceberg on Monday, as council members weighed in on whether the proposed price was too high or too low. Ward 3 Coun. Evert Botha called the proposed licensing fee “excessively steep,” especially since they weren’t in line with what the city charges wholesale liquor stores.

Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick echoed those sentiments, saying he understood the city needed to recuperate costs, but thought the proposed renewal fee of $1,500 was too high.

“I think that a business like this should have the same licensing fee as any other business,” said Ogrodnick, who was the only city councillor to vote against all three motions. “However, the amount of work that has gone into getting us to this place where we’re going to have this as a safe business in our community, I think justifies the (proposed) $5,000, but not the renewal. I disagree with that.”

Dionne and others like Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp took the opposite approach, arguing that the province has essentially created a government enforced monopoly in Prince Albert by only allowing three licences in the area (one was granted to Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation).

Lennox-Zepp compared the ability to sell licences to “winning the lottery,” and urged council to think carefully their future direction, while Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody warned that rising costs could force the city to raise their fees.

“This is a huge monopoly that’s walking into our city,” Lennox-Zepp said. “It’s a complete monopoly. The result can only be a maximum of three stores. We should really be flexible enough to handle when that transfer happens in the future.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a costly, costly item to us, and I think the costs will continue to go up,” Cody added. “I don’t like the $5,000. I don’t like the renewal either. I think that there’s a big, big, big profit in this business, and I don’t see why the taxpayers in the city of Prince Albert, 90 per cent of them who will likely not buy cannabis, will have to foot the bill. I just don’t think it’s quite right.”

However, the most contentious issue of the night involved retail hours, a topic that quickly veered into how the city regulates wholesale liquor stores. Some locations in Prince Albert stay open as late as 3 a.m., and Dionne said he would refuse to support any motion that allowed cannabis stores to do the same. Instead, he argued for a city-enforced closing time of 11 p.m.

Others, such as Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards, wanted the issue postponed for another meeting where the city could hopefully gather more public feedback. A proposal from Lennox-Zepp would have seen administrators explore the possibility of reducing hours for both cannabis and liquor stores, which caused Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski to challenge the chair after meeting chair Dennis Nowoselsky declined to rule it out of order.

Ultimately, the item was removed from the agenda, and replaced with a motion that only affected cannabis retailers, but only after Dionne accused some on city council of not taking alcohol addiction as seriously as marijuana. The retort drew loud condemnation from across the council chamber, and forced Nowoselsky to resort to his gavel to restore order.

The motion to charge a $30,000 fee passed by a 6-3 margin, with Ogrodnick, Botha and Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller dissenting. The motion to explore the feasibility of changing licensing fees when they are transferred passed by an 8-1 margin, with only Ogrodnick dissenting. The final motion on operating hours passed by a 7-2 vote, with Ogrodnick and Lennox-Zepp voting against.