Local officials

Part Two Of A Two Part Story

The final installment of the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company’s (VCDC) business luncheon broadcast held Friday, Dec. 18, gave viewers and listeners some insight into what’s on the minds of recently-elected local officials.

The luncheon, which was broadcast on Facebook Live and Channel 3 on Midco cable television because of COVID-19 concerns, featured District 17 Sen. Art Rusch and District 17 Reps.-Elect Richard Vasgaard of Centerville and Sydney Davis of Burbank.

Also on the panel are Clay County Commissioners who will take the oath of office in early January.

They include Elizabeth “Betty” Smith of Vermillion, who will be a newcomer on the board, and current incumbents Phyllis Packard and Richard Hammond, both of Vermillion, and Travis Mockler of rural Centerville.

Packard, Hammond and Mockler were all re-elected to another term on the commission in the November general election.

The event was moderated by Jason Thiel, who serves as the VCDC’s manager.

Clay County Commissioners Answer Questions

“How do you plan to represent both rural and urban interests as a county commissioner?” Thiel asked the county commissioners-elect.

“I think rural and urban interests are linked in powerful ways and I think we’re really codependent,” Smith said. “I know there have been some suggestions of having district representation rather than at-large seats (on the county commission). I would be against that because I do feel that would make it more difficult for rural representation to have an equal say, basically.

“It’s very much like the town/gown question to me. The town helps the gown and the gown helps the town and I think that’s absolutely true here, as well,” she said.

“I do feel we need to do a better job of that,” Packard said, referring to representing both rural and urban interests. “It depends on the issue and who we hear from. There are issues where we hear from town and then other issues where we will have 100 more farmers come in.”

Packard served for 18 years as solid waste director, managing the service that handles both the city of Vermillion and Clay County’s garbage. “I know all sides of our county,” she said.

“I think having more presence, even online and possibly Facebook and using the media to get our information out -- some sort of platform beyond the county commission meetings to connect more of our public to us and us to them,” she said. “I don’t know how you would meet out in the county to get a real gathering unless you go to each township meeting, but possibly even doing it in a Zoom fashion for a while might work.”

Manning notes that he’s lived in the City of Vermillion for 35 years and served as the community’s postmaster and also farmed his whole life, so he can relate to both rural residents and people who live within Vermillion’s city limits.

Besides serving on the county commission, today he also serves on the boards of the Vermillion Food Pantry, SESDAC, Inc. and the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company (VCDC).

“I think this helps me a lot. I think I’m pretty open to talk to; I think anybody can come and talk to me,” Manning said. “I might not agree with you, but I think you can reach me. That’s not a problem. I’m going to try to work with both sides; that’s what I’ve always done and I’m going to continue to do that.”

Hammond said he was participating in the Dec. 18 meeting from his office at Heine Electric and Irrigation located three miles west of Vermillion on Highway 50.

“Most of our customers are farm customers and I’ve been a well-driller for 30 years,” he said. “I’ve been a resident of Vermillion, exactly like Mike, for 35 years, so I view myself and Mike as having a foot in each community. Being a geologist and well-driller, I have a unique responsibility to serve both (rural and urban populations).

He noted that Heine Electric and Irrigation was, at the time, working on a water project in the city of Vermillion.

“That’s very common … so I kind of have an idea of how things work in the town,” Hammond said, “and back in the ‘90s, I was on the Vermillion Planning Commission, so I have a number of those sorts of links and I feel comfortable working in both communities. I think it’s one big community.”

There are 14,000 residents in Clay County and about 4,000 of them live out in the country, he said.

“A lot of folks think of us, as county commissioners, as being commissioners of everything but Vermillion,” Hammond said. “I think that’s entirely wrong. Our responsibilities go through the whole 400-and-some square miles of the county, inside and outside of town. “

Mockler said he grew up east of Vermillion and graduated from Vermillion High School.

“I still have friends and plenty of family that live in Vermillion,” he said. “I farm the Wakonda/northern part of Clay County. My wife is from the Meckling area so there’s plenty of family over there. I feel like I have family dispersed throughout the whole county and/or friends that have no problem calling me and asking what’s going on. And if there’s a problem, they have no problem letting me know that it’s a problem.”

Mockler said he likes to think that there is a “whole cross-section of the whole county that relates to me and I can relate to me.”

Thiel asked the commissioners-elect if they favor lobbying the South Dakota Legislature to authorize special county and municipal property taxes to fund capital projects such as the county facilities after a public vote in the affected jurisdiction.

“We need whatever we can get to help us fund county projects,” Packard said. “I think the simple answer is yes, we need it and I don’t know if lobbying is the issue … but as far as the need, yes, we need to have whatever resources we can have and assistance by the state.”

Manning agreed.

“I think that any avenues that we can get to have the state legislators help us with funding – and last year we went up to Pierre. There was a bill to help with funding of courthouses and other construction and it went nowhere,” he said. “I would love to see our state legislators help us out this year.

“We aren’t the only county in the state having issues with their courthouse,” Manning said. “You can read the paper and every time you turn around … you can learn that we’re all in bad shape and we all need the help. I was disappointed last year … I’m all for it. We’ve got to have some help here. We can’t just do this on our own; we can’t expect the people of Clay County to fund all of this. We need the state to step in and help us with this.”

Hammond took part in trying to drum up support in Pierre during last year’s legislative session for a sales tax within counties to help support infrastructure improvements of various sorts.

County officials made a bit more progress than they did the year before, he said, but the effort once again failed.

“I’m hoping there’s a little different leadership on bringing a similar bill to the Legislature this coming legislative session,” Hammond said. “Our needs are great and we need a broader range of ways to finance these sorts of projects and we’re really looking for help.”

“We can already do a bond vote that the people of the county could approve,” Mockler said, “so I think that part is already done. I’d hate to see property taxes be raised; I think we need a different revenue source.”

He noted that the sales tax that counties hoped would be added to generate revenue for them is a regressive tax.

“But I have to ask you, which one isn’t?” Mockler said. “If you pay a tax, it’s a bad tax. The only good tax is the one that somebody else pays. We just need to find a different revenue source. We’ve been trying and we’ll have to keep trying.”

“I think that there are multiple options beyond local property taxes or sales taxes,” Smith said. “Many states have grant programs for counties that are required to take care of jails and roads and so on. One other possibility would be a regional consortium where a group of counties got together and build together a larger, more cost-effective facility.

“Some form of support is necessary,” she said. “The other possibility is a temporary sales tax – a sales tax that’s tied directly to the capital project so, if you build a new jail, people maybe pay half of a percent of new sales tax until that bond issue is paid off at which point the sales tax goes away.”

All options should be explored, Smith said.

“I really do believe in the power of associations and have been reading a lot on the website on the state association of county commissioners and I think, given the breadth of the problem across the state, that building a coalition with that organization to consider these different models would be helpful,” she said.

Legislators-Elect Also Take Questions

“What are your thoughts about how the Legislature should regulate medical and recreational marijuana and industrial hemp?” Thiel asked the state legislators-elect.

“People simply didn’t read that,” Sen Art Rusch said, referring to the Constitutional amendment that voters approved in November that legalizes the recreational use of marijuana. Last November, voters also approved a measure which creates a medical marijuana market in the state.

“That (amendment) gives the exclusive authority to prepare rules and regulations to the governor’s office,” he said. “My position is going to be that the Legislature, as a result of that, has absolutely no authority to do anything in regard to recreational marijuana unless the court decision rules that it is unconstitutional, which it may very well be.”

A lawsuit in South Dakota filed in late November with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem questions the constitutionality of the voter-approved amendment that legalized recreational marijuana in the state.

“As far as the medical and the hemp, we passed the hemp bill last session, which I thought went a long way toward resolving that,” Rusch said. “As far as the medical, I know Amendment A says we’ve got to pass laws dealing with medical marijuana. Initiated Law 26 passes those laws, so it’s going to be a real issue. Do we go in there and try to fix the real problems there are in Initiated Law 26, the medical marijuana one, and get all of the criticism from people saying we shouldn’t mess with that when Amendment A requires us to do that?

“It’s just a mess,” he said. “Probably a lot of that is going to be coming before the Judiciary Committee and I’m going to be dealing with a lot of that, but I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

“As far as industrial hemp is concerned, I believe that those rules have been sent to the USDA or have been approved,” Vasgaard said. “I think that has been taken care of.”

He added that he’s had some conversations with Rusch about medical marijuana and still doesn’t fully understand the role the Legislature may play.

“Recreational marijuana -- we’ll have to see where the courts go with that,” Vasgaard said. “I would be in opposition to it. I was in college from 1968 to 1972, so I saw some of the things that it did to some people and I just don’t think that we need that.

“We’ve got a big drug problem in this state the way it is and I could see how that might contribute to it,” he said.

“It doesn’t really matter how I feel (about Amendment A) because the voters have spoken and we need to deal with the end result,” Davis said. “It’s tied up in some legal battles right now and it doesn’t sound very promising that those legal issues will be resolved until sometime after session. So, what do we do in the meantime?”

She said Rusch’s assessment is correct and that a lot of authority dealing with the amendment is given to the governor’s office.

“Whether or not the Legislature gets to weigh in on a lot of this -- it will be interesting,” Davis said. “As a freshman, I’m still trying to figure a lot of this out, as well. I’ll be honest, as a healthcare provider, there are a lot of questions that I have about the medical marijuana part that I need to get more information on and learning what we all have to do in working with the Department of Health and learning what they need to set up a medical marijuana program.”

Both she and the constituents she’s heard from are concerned about the difficulties law enforcement will likely face and how the recreational marijuana measure changes their line of work.

“I think it will be important to take that into consideration so that we still have safe drivers and allow for some law and order despite this being legal,” Davis said, “and that whatever amount becomes legalized for you to possess, that we still have compliance with those things.”

“Clay County is faced with the need to improve its law enforcement and general county government facilities which would be especially burdensome on property taxes. Many local governments have successfully sought state legislation allowing sales tax for specific local capital projects after a public vote. Do you favor or oppose this authorization and why?” Thiel asked.

“I would support the authorization if it is a local entity and they’re working to improve their infrastructure or whatever they’re doing,” Vasgaard said. “As long as there is a vote and the people approve it, they should have that opportunity.”

“I think in these types of scenarios, it’s really going to come down to what the language of the bill actually says,” Davis said. “I will want to be looking at the details of the bill and most importantly, as Richard said, making sure that there is a component so that local citizens have a say.

“I wouldn’t want to see any sort of a blanket tax increase of whatever nature without the consent of the people,” she said.

“I made it very clear that I’m opposed to the direction that the county commissioners are going on the county facilities,” Rusch said. “I don’t dispute the fact that there needs to be changes. I’ve met with them and made some recommendations which I felt have been largely ignored. I’ve made recommendations to them about how they need to proceed if they want to get a sales tax and they’ve basically ignored that.

“Every year, the county commissioners across the state have come up with multiple different proposals which aren’t going to go anywhere when they’ve got different, opposing bills,” he said. “Until the county commissioners get their act together and agree on one proposal to begin with, they’re not going to get any. “

“If Congress does not reauthorize stimulus funding to supplement the state budget, what state budget cuts would you favor?” Thiel asked.

“It is no secret that it is not necessarily a spending problem in South Dakota, it is a revenue problem in South Dakota,” Davis said. “When we’re talking about cutting budgets, we already run a real lean and mean state the way it is, so that would be real strategic.

“I don’t think there would be one department that we could say we could cut out or eliminate, or say they are being wasteful,” she said. “I think our appropriators do a pretty good job,” adding that one of the toughest jobs of the Legislature is to balance the budget every year. “I think we’d have to take that department by department if we need to do any sort of budget cuts.”

“What makes South Dakota different from a lot of states is that we have a constitutional provision that mandates that we have a balanced budget,” Rusch said, “so, that’s something that we’ve got to come up with every year.”

He noted that Gov. Noem is projecting, because of COVID-19 federal funding South Dakota has received, “that we’re going to have plenty of money for 2021, but that 2022 is going to be the serious problem. In fact, she’s proposing that $50 million additional go into the reserves next year. It’s a problem, but I’m not sure that it’s a problem that we’re going to need to address for another year.”

“As a freshman legislator, I have a lot to learn about this process,” Vasgaard said. “In our state’s history, we’ve had some other times when we’ve had some serious budget problems and everybody in government has to take their share of cuts -- that’s my feeling -- instead of trying to pick and choose which ones should be eliminated.

“I think we need to look across the board and make cuts in that fashion,” he said.

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