Visalians consider dispensaries at a higher rate

Public opinion survey shows Visalia is leaning toward allowing recreational marijuana dispensaries within city limits

VISALIA – The views of Visalia residents on issues facing their city haven’t changed much in the last year, except when it comes to recreational marijuana.

Visalians are nearly split on the issue of allowing marijuana dispensaries according to the results from this year’s public opinion survey. And while a coin flip isn’t a definitive position, it represents a definite shift in attitudes. Just last year, only 39% of residents said they were in favor of the city reexamining its city-imposed ban on the sale of recreational marijuana, a figure that had remained unchanged since the statewide approval of recreational marijuana in the 2016 general election.

It seems undecided respondents were the difference as the number of people with no opinion dropped from 11% to 1%, while the number of those in favor of dispensaries increased by 10% and those against remained unchanged.

The differences were more pronounced by income level. Those in higher income brackets only slightly leaned toward banning dispensaries, 4% for incomes between $70,000 to $100,000 and 9% for incomes over $100,000, while lower incomes more heavily favored allowing dispensaries, with a 21% edge for incomes $40,000 to $70,000 and 31% for those making less than $40,000. This fell in line with age splits as well. The number of 18-34 year-olds in favor of dispensaries tripled those against while the number of 55 and older against dispensaries was 25% more than those for them. There was only a 4% margin in favor among ages 35-45.

John Bueno, current chair of the survey committee, said the issue has likely shifted even more but younger people were underrepresented in this year’s survey. Residents age 35 and younger represent more than one-third of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but only make up 16% of this year’s survey respondents. Bueno said if you took an even number of respondents in all age brackets, those in favor would shift to a majority 57%.

“When using age to compare the marijuana consensus, there is a sharp reversal from a majority yes in the younger demographic to a majority no in the older demographic,” Beuno told the council at its Aug. 17 meeting. “We aren’t hitting enough of the younger demographic to sway one way or the other.”

Homeless still No. 1 issue

When asked to fill in the blank with the number one issue facing their city, Visalians continue to rank homelessness as their top issue by a large margin. The survey also asked what residents think the city should do about homelessness. More than half said the city should provide a homeless shelter and nearly a third said provide more services. Councilmember Brian Poochigian added this question last year because he wasn’t sure what else the city could afford to do on top of the $6 million or so per year it already spends on programs for the homeless. The city was able to find a new fund in order to build a homeless shelter, something it approved recently.

At its July 20 meeting, the Visalia City Council unanimously approved just under $1 million to build or rehabilitate an existing facility into a low barrier homeless shelter. The city has also budgeted about $410,000 annually to operate the shelter. Known as the Permanent Local Housing Allocation Program (PLHA), funding for the shelter was created by Senate Bill 2 passed in 2017 to address the shortage of affordable housing in California. The Building Homes and Jobs Act established a $75 recording fee on all real estate documents. Seventy percent of the funding goes to cities and 30% goes to the state. The city would partner with a non profit for development and operation of the shelter. The city would contribute another $1.5 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding through 2022-23 for a total cost of about $2.5 million for the development of the shelter. PHLA funds will also provide $96,000 per year to operate a temporary emergency shelter.

High rank for police

Mayor Bob Link and Poochigian noted nearly two-thirds of those surveyed rates police services “high” or “very high” at a time of heightened criticism of police nationwide. In fact, there was even a 1% improvement in the city’s overall rating of its police force.

“With all the negativeness with public safety in the press and other areas, it’s nice that people still look at our public safety people and give them a top grade in doing their job,” Link said.

Of the 47% of respondents who had contact with police, the northwest quadrant of the city had the highest rating for the Visalia Police Department but no one area of the city gave an overall rating lower than “average” to “high.”

“There’s lot of talk about our public safety department, but if you look at the survey people generally rate our public safety pretty high and its been pretty consistent over the years,” Poochigian said. “I want to applaud public safety.”

Seeking accuracy

The biggest change in next year’s survey will be a focus on demographics. Joel Rosales, chair of Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) which oversees the survey, pointed out that 7 in 10 respondents to this year’s survey where Caucasian, double the city’s actual percentage of white residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Every other group was underrepresented when compared to the Census, including Hispanics (16% instead of 53%), Blacks (0.08% instead of 2%), and Asians (2% instead of 5%).

“This is a great snapshot of what’s on mind of citizens of Visalia, but one thing seems to be lacking,” councilmember Greg Collins said. “When you look at the actual demographics, I don’t know this is getting to those folks. How can we get more reliable data?”

Rosales said the goal was to do more in-person surveys at locations that reach different aspects of the community, such as COS, the senior center and nonprofits that cater to non-English speaking residents. But their first outreach event happened the day before the governor’s shelter-in-place order in March.

“This year we were not able to do that due to COVID-19,” Rosales said. “There is a big impact this survey can have if it hits the proper demographics.”

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen cautioned against seeking out certain demographics because it may skew the results in a completely different way.

“I think you are better off doing the random approach,” Nelsen said. “If you seek out certain parts of the community it skews the response.”

Older residents living in the northwest quadrant of the city tended to have a higher quality of life and gave public safety more favorable ratings. Ninety-two percent of respondents consider the quality of life in Visalia to be average or better. The city’s effort at providing a safe community was rated as average to very high with 89% of the respondents. For those citizens having contact with public safety in the past year, a majority of respondents valued the service contact as good to excellent at 85%.

Rosales received 26% fewer surveys this year due to COVID-19. Most respondents were homeowners who have lived in Visalia for more than 10 years and are registered voters.

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