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Local Column

Olson: Innocent minds won't notice dispensaries

I grew up in Bloomingdale in the 1980s and ’90s. It was a good, safe community with good people.

At that time, if you drove just a short distance west out the village limits on Lake Street, you wound up in a DuPage County version of a red-light district.  

As a boy, I passed through the area countless times, blissfully unaware. It never occurred to me that the rundown place called Pirates Cove with “daily fashion shows” was a strip club. Or that the squat building just down the road was an adult bookstore, or that the massage parlors might not have been strictly therapeutic.

I was interested in He-Man, when my next hockey practice was, or if I could persuade my parents to spend $90 on a pair of Air Jordans. (One year they did. They were green and orange, which almost matched my junior high basketball uniform.)

I reminisce like this because in the town where I live now, Sycamore, the City Council is trying to decide whether they should allow a recreational marijuana dispensary.

Mind you, changing the city’s municipal code to allow a dispensary wouldn’t mean one would open in Sycamore – and almost certainly not when marijuana becomes legal for adult use on Jan. 1 – but it means one could open one day.

Would the existence of such a store corrupt local children? Experience tells me probably not.

Will children be corrupted if their parents or others in their lives buy marijuana and leave it lying around the house for them to find, or flat-out give it to them? Yes. That will happen. It already does, not only with marijuana, but alcohol and tobacco, too.

But Illinois lawmakers have decided to legalize marijuana statewide. Nearby in DeKalb, the City Council seems almost certain to allow a dispensary – after they consult with officials at Northern Illinois University – and it seems likely one will open there in the not-distant future.

So Sycamore people probably will have convenient access to marijuana, whether it’s sold in their town or not.

Municipalities will be allowed to charge a sales tax of up to 3% on recreational pot. Does Sycamore’s city government need the money?

Like most communities, they have pensions funds to pay. In the 2019 budget, the city transferred a combined $50,000 from the general fund into the police and fire pension funds, on top of roughly $1.2 million in property tax going into them. This year they’re hoping to transfer a combined $60,000 into those funds. The pensions are funded in the 60% range, and the city has 20 years to make them 90% funded.

A lucrative sales-tax rebate deal with United and American airlines that once generated more than $700,000 a year – essentially free money – is long gone.

City Manager Brian Gregory has a good reputation for budget management, but the money has to come from somewhere.  

Say Sycamore could make $60,000 to $100,000 a year through a tax on marijuana sales. That’s not a lot for a city with a $17 million general fund budget. But it could pay for a police officer or officer training, street and sidewalk repair, water system upgrades, pensions – anything.

If the council wants to take a moral stand against what will be a legal product – as some communities already have done – that’s fine. We Sycamore residents can wrap ourselves in the Pumpkin Fest flag and say we’re a town where old-fashioned values still matter.

I can respect that – until anyone talks about raising taxes.

The next time city officials bring up increasing the motor fuel tax, or the sales tax rate, or any other taxes or fees to cover obligations, they should expect that a ban on pot sales will be among the first objections raised.

It’s hard to talk about raising any other tax if you’ve been leaving money on the table. If given the choice between allowing a marijuana dispensary in town now or a tax increase five years down the road, most people would probably choose allowing a dispensary.

There probably are some out-of-the-way spots in Sycamore that could accommodate a dispensary. The signs can be discreet – people who want that product will seek it out.

What goes on there will be hidden in plain sight to those with innocent minds.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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