Bennett County budget concerns growing, Opt Out likely

By Tim Huether

Bennett County is headed for a financial crash if things don’t change and the things that need changing, they can’t do much about, such as staggering criminal justice costs.

A tax opt out will likely come from the Commissioners and they have until July 15 to declare their intent for an opt out or they will have to wait another year. The maximum they will be able to opt out for is somewhere in the neighborhood of $378,000 per year.

If the county approves an opt out, anyone wishing to file a petition protesting the move will have 20 days after the time it is first published in the Bennett County Booster to circulate a petition and turn it back in to put it to the vote of the people.

At the Bennett County Commission meeting June 19, Chairman Rolf Kraft said a group including himself, Bennett County States Attorney Ken Orrock, Bennett County Sheriff Luke Hamar, Bennett County Auditor Susan Williams met in Pierre with the governor’s Chief of Staff, Dustin Johnson and State Policy Analyst Will Mortenson to discuss the budget crisis of Bennett County.

“We asked them what happens if the county goes broke and they were not sure,” said Kraft. “We left there not knowing what will happen if we go broke. I’m curious what the governor is going to tell us.”

Kraft said they were surprised when they heard we collect only $1.38 million in taxes each year.

Kraft said he will be writing a letter to the governor about the problem and see what if any help the county can get.

Auditor Susan Williams said the state employees all genuinely listened to them.

“I think they were appalled at our situation,” said Williams. “People have no idea we are getting no money for non-taxed lands.”

With cuts needed, discussion was held about the library, which receives $80,000 per year to operate in a joint effort with the school district.

Kraft said he will contact Superintendent Wayne Semmler and see if the school can take over the library.

“We have to try to do something,” suggested Kraft. “I don’t want to have to close it.”

Auditor Williams said the proposed budget for next year is $400,000 over budget.

Kraft reviewed the key budget issues with the other commissioners with the following information from Krafts handout:

- The county population is 3,441 with 800 property owners and 25 percent of the county is in trust land that houses 45 percent of the residents.

- The county plans to ask its citizens to opt out of the property tax freeze to avoid bankruptcy. 

- Bennett County is second  only to Hughes County in misdemeanor and felony filings in the 6th Circuit. Their felony filings exceed those of Tripp and Todd County combined by 33 percent, and exceed the two counties combined in misdemeanor filings by 25 percent.

- Court appointed attorney and travel expenses from Rapid City were $100,000 in 2012.

- Adult jail costs and travel expenses to Winner were $500,000 in 2012, which includes inmate care, medical and travel.

- Bennett County supplies more than 50 percent of the inmates in the Winner Municipal Jail.

- Juvenile incarceration costs in Rapid City are $225 per day and from January to May of this year, that total is more than $110,000.

Kraft also said the County provided the Bennett County Hospital with a $500,000 bailout loan in the past, which is likely more than the hospital would be able to pay.

The county will ask the governor to help lobby the federal legislative delegation to create impact aid for counties akin to impact aid for schools or PILT funds. They will ask for an end to the tax freeze and ask the governor to allow for other revenue sources. The last two are unlikely to happen because of the governors stance on taxes.

Jackson County Highway Superintendent Dwight Deaver approached the Commissioners about a haul road agreement they wanted the county to sign with them. He said Bennett County is hauling rock and gravel on a 1.2 mile stretch of county road from the Olson Pit on Red Stone Road and the road is getting beat up.

The agreement asks that Bennett County maintain the 1.2 mile stretch and keep it in the same or better condition that it was and that Bennett County would be liable for any damages done to the road because of extensive gravel hauling. It also stated Bennett County would provide Jackson County with 100 ton of gravel, including labor, equipment and materials necessary to maintain the 1.2 miles of road.

Commissioner Jason Fanning said he felt it was no different than people hauling livestock, grain or other things, it’s a county road.

“Why not go after the guy selling the rock,” argued Fanning. 

Commissioner Kraft said he agreed with Fanning, adding, “this guy is selling us the gravel.”

Bennett County Hwy Supervisor Jerry Bennett said they keep a blade up there and blade it several times. He added that a lot of the problems were from other trucks hauling out of there.

Deaver said they are trying to make this a neighborly gesture for damages.

After discussion that Bennett County is maintaining the road when they use it, Jason Fanning stated, “As far as I’m concerned, you can tell your commissioners we’re not interested (in a signed agreement), it’s a public road.”

Deaver said Bennett County is the first county not willing to make an agreement, but Rolf Kraft said, “I think we have agreed to something, we’ve had Jerry blade it.”

“At least we’re aware of it, but we’re not interested and we’ll take care of anything we do,” said Fanning.

In other action, the commissioners approved of the hiring of Rebecca Klaudt, States Attorney administrative assistant at $9 per hour, effective June 10.

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