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Barstow’s City Council took a few actions of short- and long-term relevance to local taxpayers in a meeting that yielded a few flare-ups from the dais and public last week.

The public meeting began at 7 p.m. — and lasted roughly three and a half hours — on Nov. 15 after City Attorney Matthew Summers held a training session for the City Council on California’s open-meetings laws. Summers promised the training to the county District Attorney’s Office last May to quash violations allegedly committed by most of the council’s members, the Daily Press previously reported.

The five-member elected panel went on to approve a number of items with implications for Barstow’s future, including:

A private-security chauffeur

The council approved a three-year contract to pay an estimated $419,000 in wages and tech to Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based Universal Protection Service LP. It will buy the city a pair of private drivers to haul Barstow Police arrestees to High Desert jails and prisons, handle bookings and conduct hospital checks.

Additional costs to the city will come from the private drivers using a city-owned car in their services, according to the contract, which requires Barstow “to carry Automobile Liability insurance for those vehicles with bodily injury and property damage limits of ($1 million).”

Summers said insurance liability in a potential incident would depend on where fault lies: If a wheel falls off while the contractor is driving the city’s car, Barstow is liable; if the driver swerves into another car, the company is liable.

Police Chief Andrew Espinoza said additional costs were too great in an alternative contract for the private firm, which does business under the name Allied Universal Security Services, to use its own car for these services. He said the distance that city-employed officers currently drive to take detainees places like West Valley Detention Center, in Rancho Cucamonga, is a strain on already low time and morale.

The contract will designate two drivers to work 40 hours a week Monday-Friday. The drivers will take over all paperwork except for probable cause declarations when booking arrestees into prison or jail.

The money for this contract will come from the Police Uniform Division budget of Barstow’s Measure Q funds, which come from a one-cent sales tax passed in a 2018 ballot referendum and are used by public-safety agencies.

The City Council unanimously approved the contract with Universal Protection last week.

High fees for pot-shop owners

A fee structure the city is now set to impose on its nascent commercial-cannabis industry.

Barstow is opting to slap hefty costs on aspiring and existing businesses in order to apply for and maintain permits. The approved fees will cost cannabis entrepreneurs a minimum of nearly $20,000 to apply for a permit, and a bit more than $14,000 to renew in each subsequent year.

It is an alternative for the city to raise revenue and fund inspections and law-enforcement without creating a special tax on cannabis sales or profits business make in the city.

Some residents criticized the fees as too high for anyone except for deep-pocketed businesses to participate in Barstow’s new industry. “They’re necessary,” countered Chris Heldreth, the city’s Building and Safety Department director and its fire marshal.

“Fees lower than this would ensure the city subsidizes commercial cannabis,” he said.

A comparative High Desert example, Adelanto, shows a mixed approach. Adelanto charges lower fees — a nearly $7,400 application fee and $8,500 annual renewal fee — but additionally has monthly taxes on businesses of $0.415 per square foot of cannabis cultivated or 3% of gross receipts for all other kinds of business.

Barstow’s fees-only proposal was approved 3-2 last week, with Councilwoman Barbara Rose and Mayor Pro Tem James Noble casting dissenting votes.

‘Vacation rentals’

A municipal-code amendment got final approval from the City Council that allows Airbnb-style “vacation rentals” and other new commercial residences to be established and operated in Barstow.

The amendment updates the types of residences that Barstow permits by adding “short-term rentals,” or a “dwelling unit” offered to “paying guest(s)” by a “rental operator” for no more than 30 consecutive nights.

It also allows for “bed and breakfasts,” which it defines as “a small lodging” with at most four rented rooms, “overnight accommodations and breakfast” and a “caretaker or owner” living in the lodge.

The ordinance designates these kinds of vacation rentals to areas in the city’s limits that contain little to no population density or commercial development.

Proponents say these new residential units will make renting easier and promote “the development of affordable housing,” the meeting agenda stated. But vacation rental companies like Airbnb have been criticized for contributing to broader hikes in rent and property values for other areas like Barstow.

The City Council had already unanimously approved the vacation-rentals changes in an initial vote Nov. 1, and passed it a second and final time without discussion by approving the “consent calendar” of its meeting last week.

A few other notes

Councilman Tim Silva called into the meeting due to an unknown sickness that also apparently caused his absence at the meeting two weeks prior. Silva did not respond to a request to clarify his condition, but said “it’s hard to speak this evening” at the meeting with a clear rasp and got offerings prayers from other council members.

One of multiple contentious moments came in a vote to approve a series of payments from the city’s coffers.

They included invoices filed by Mayor Paul Courtney for reimbursement on a total of $1,064 worth of gas he says he used in his personal vehicle on the city’s behalf for long-distance drives, such as a trip to Sacramento for the California League of Cities conference.

Councilwoman Barbara Rose challenged the reimbursements because all but about $86 of them applied to drives Courtney made more than 30 days prior to the meeting. She cited a policy that prohibits approval of such reimbursements after that much time has passed, which City Manager Willie Hopkins corroborated.

Courtney pushed back, blaming Rose for the delay because of previous policy questions she raised regarding city officials using personal vehicles.

Ultimately, the City Council chose to send the 30-day policy to its Rules & Policy Committee for review and passed the mayor’s reimbursements 3-2 with approval from Courtney, Noble and Councilwoman Marilyn Dyer-Kruse, and dissenting votes from Rose and Silva.

Charlie McGee covers the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

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