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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

February 15, 2018

Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, Feb. 13

Voters should support higher rates for water

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand where the Citizens for Liberty really stand on local issues.

On Tuesday, the citizens’ group told the Rapid City Council it opposes a new Barnett Arena, citing wasteful spending while suggesting money would be better spent on items like infrastructure, which includes the city’s vast water supply and distribution system.

At the same time, however, the same group is responsible for this month’s $60,000 special election that challenges the city council’s recent vote to raise water rates.

The liberty group collected the signatures needed to challenge the vote on the ballot after the council approved what the city says is a 52 percent increase in water rates for the average residential user that will be phased in over five years.

Technically, though, the special election only addresses a technicality. The city council passed the hike with a resolution rather than an ordinance — which meant one fewer public hearing was held that likely would not have changed the outcome. The resolution was approved on a 9-1 vote by the council, which can revisit the rates whenever it chooses.

The liberty group seized on that perceived public slight as the reason for the special election, suggesting this is an issue of process, which is a smoke screen. The real issue, of course, is the percentage increase of the rate hike that seems alarming without considering the big picture.

Focusing on just the percentage increase is like watching a movie through a pinhole. This is about water, which has a direct impact on public health and safety, economic development, and life, liberty and happiness.

If one takes the time to enlarge the pinhole even just a little bit, they will discover that the availability of clean water from a reliable source will continue to be one of the best deals in town.

Currently, most single-family homes are billed $3.11 for every 748 gallons — or one billing unit — of water and uses the average 7.5 units a month. In addition, those users are assessed a $7.39 meter charge for a total monthly bill of $30.72, a little over a dollar a day.

By 2022, those same customers would pay $4.73 per unit and an $11.18 meter charge for a bill of $46.22 a month, a little more than $1.50 a day. If voters approve, it will be the first rate increase since 2013.

It’s hard, therefore, to argue that having a reliable source of clean water delivered to your home for $1.50 a day is a consequence of government largess or reckless spending, which is likely why opponents focus on process and percentage and not service and actual cost.

Nonetheless, the liberty group is entitled to challenge the council’s decision on the ballot, where voters will be asked whether they support the city’s decision to approve with a resolution rather than an ordinance.

In taking this approach, Citizens for Liberty is challenging the role of the city council in a bid to raise its own profile as spending hawks or government watchdogs — ironically at a cost of $60,000 to taxpayers.

So, it is up to Rapid City residents to decide if they will take the time to vote, which can be a problem when a special election is held — especially in February when it can be cold, windy and slippery outdoors. Now is not the time, however, to shirk one’s duty as a citizen, taxpayer and customer of the city’s water service. Do you support the city’s management of the water system or not? It’s an opportunity to weigh in in a meaningful way.

City staff has done its due diligence in studying the need for a rate increase that will allow for upgrades to infrastructure and maintain the water service that is vital to a community while sending the clear message that Rapid City will continue to be a reliable provider to residents and businesses. The council and mayor have studied the issue and given their approval. If residents are unhappy with their decision, they can vote them out of office in a future election.

Early voting is now ongoing at the Pennington County Auditor’s Office in Rapid City. Election Day is Tuesday, Feb. 20. A “yes” vote endorses the city’s process and its commitment to providing affordable and clean water. A “no” vote means the process starts over and likely lays the groundwork for more special elections that will tie the hands of the city council and drive up the costs of future infrastructure needs that are sure to come.

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The Daily Republic, Mitchell, Feb. 13

If dredge plan is decided, community backing needed

For nearly three dedicated years, there have been countless hours spent discussing and exploring all options to solve Lake Mitchell’s woes.

In April 2015, an official with South Dakota State University met with the city’s volunteer Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee to suggest the lake be drained to add habitat, control sediment and resculpt the lake.

After studies, plans and multiple improvement methods have been presented, the idea to drain and dredge the lake is again at the forefront of discussions in hopes of ridding the blue-green algae from the water. An estimated $6 million initial investment would be the cost for the first major restoration effort, but Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey said it also would mean no Lake Mitchell for at least nine months.

That price tag is much more alluring than previous proposals from Omaha-based Fyra Engineering of between $30 million to $80 million. But it’s safe to say there is hesitancy on the drain-and-dredge plan from homeowners who live near and on Lake Mitchell, which is likely why there was significant time spent searching for alternative options.

And while we recognize the aesthetics of Lake Mitchell will decline drastically in the fall, winter and spring during the work, we believe the short-term headache will be worth the long-term benefits.

Ultimately, the Mitchell City Council will need to approve this plan — but we hope council members hear a strong buy-in from residents near the lake well before any vote. It’s rare to find a person in the city who doesn’t believe we need to fix the lake.

If the best route of action to fix Lake Mitchell from a cost and efficiency standpoint is to drain and dredge, we need to get started on it — perhaps as soon as after Labor Day of this year.

Three years ago, what seemed to be a minor suggestion from that SDSU official ultimately has become a serious consideration. Now, after exploring all options and realizing it’s likely the best option, we hope there’s overwhelming support.

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American News, Aberdeen, Feb. 14

Courthouse security improvements are past due

The folks who lead various Brown County departments might have to scrimp a bit this year.

At least it’s for a worthy cause.

County commissioners last week asked department heads to save money by trimming 7 percent from the amount they have budgeted for supplies this year. Commissioners plan to use that money and more for expenses related to making sure courtrooms are secure during hearings at the Brown County Courthouse.

The judges of the 5th Judicial Circuit forced the issue, ordering the commission to provide security to keep court officials and workers, as well as citizens involved in the hearings, safe.

It’s past due.

The cost for the security improvements is expected to about $200,000. Of that, the large majority — $166,000 — is to hire two certified law enforcement officers and one noncertified officer for $166,000. Paul Sivertsen, the county’s chief information officer, and Sheriff Mark Milbrandt estimated cost of securing doorways and adding elevator stops will be about $35,000.

Commissioners were in a tough spot when the judges sent them an order in December calling for the upgrades. This year’s budget had already been approved and it can’t be changed retroactively, Commissioner Doug Fjeldheim said.

That is to say the commission can’t demand, for example, that the auditor’s office or fair board spend less than what’s already been allocated to them. So commissioners had to send a letter asking departments to be conservative.

That might be a bit easier for those who work in the courthouse and other office settings than, say, the highway department. If the highway department cuts back, it might mean less road work gets done.

Judges gave the commission a Feb. 5 deadline for the security upgrades. That date has come and gone, but the judges eased on it since the county was making progress.

The call by the judges was certainly reasonable. Security is rarely provided now at court hearings, though the county does have a detector it can and does use, generally for cases involving very serious crimes.

Soon, though, everybody attending a court hearing will have to pass through a security checkpoint. And that is the right thing.

Judge Tony Portra said last year that he had a video of a man in front of the clerk of courts office holding a garden shovel and wanting to talk to Judge Mark Anderson.

Those types of instances are outrageous, of course, but there’s nothing to stop them now. It would not be difficult to sneak a weapon into the courthouse. And judges and attorneys sometimes have to make decisions that upset defendants, clients and others involved in the legal process.

“I don’t want to be a plaque,” Portra told commissioners in October when he first broached the idea of improved security. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, that Judge Portra, he was a pretty nice guy, man, I sure miss him, I wish he didn’t get shot.’ I want somebody to do something about it ahead of time. I don’t want a parade.”

He’s right.

There’s never going to be a financially convenient time for the county to find the money, so sooner is better than later.

Here’s hoping the departments heed the call of commissioners and can save some money to help offset the security costs.

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