by Alan Aker, Piedmont-Summerset-Black Hawk District 4 commissioner.
We're organized. The Meade Commission held its organizational meeting January 5 and elected Commissioner Galen Niederwerder Chair and Commissioner Bob Bertolotto Vice-Chair. I'm looking forward to not having to run the meetings this year, and I think it's good for the public to see this position rotate. Our board has always decided how to run our meetings by consensus and discussion among all five board members, and the chair of the board only runs the meeting, not the county, and I think the public can forget this if they see the same presiding officer year after year.
We also discussed the need for some of our smaller entities to get some audits, in light of the alleged theft of over $140,000 from the Kadoka Volunteer Fire Department by their treasurer. There is no requirement for any outside audits of volunteer fire departments, road districts, ambulance districts, fire districts, and sanitary districts. Townships file annual reports with the county commission, which are published. The consensus of the board was that we do not have authority to require audits or public financial reports from these entities, but their members/taxpayers do have the right to ask to see the checkbooks of these entities, and we encourage them to do so. We noted that it is also a wise practice to require two signatures to write checks and/or rotate the treasurer position every year or so. We discussed whether it would be a good use of county funds to offer to pay the expense of random audits of those entities which would like to be audited. Please let any of your commissioners know if you see value in this. We're not accusing any of our entities of any mis-spending; we're just trying to learn the lesson from the Kadoka incident the easy way instead of the hard way.
We had a good discussion with our new Highway Superintendent, Lincoln Shuck, about whether the county could save money by hiring its own engineer. It appears to me that there is a good chance we could. We asked Shuck to report back with cost projections. Conservative government isn't always just cutting the payroll: in this case, it's looking for the lowest-cost option between having a county employee and hiring an outside firm. Pennington County, with fewer miles of roads and fewer bridges, does have staff engineers. Towns as small as Belle Fourche also have a city engineer, so it would not be unusual for a county our size to have one.
Shuck also spoke about the poor quality of some of the gravel the county has paid for. He stated that just looking at the gravel reveals some was taken from parts of the pits that had too little stone to be gravel. In the past, the county has relied on random testing of the gravel by outside engineers. Shuck stated he will now have county employees, including himself, frequently checking on the crushing while it's happening. Just meeting the minimum standard will no longer be good enough in Meade County. Amen and amen!
We also discussed use of some of the money paid to the county by Glencoe Campground owners as a fine for their illegal damming of Bear Butte Creek. The money is required to be spent on land conservation. The commission set a hearing on creating a budget category for these funds, and there was support for helping Black Hills Trails, a volunteer trail-building group, with supplies for the newly-approved Seventh Cavalry and Deadman Trails near Sturgis and Piedmont.
The county's checkbook balance continues to improve year-over-year. This year should bring us additional significant savings just from lower fuel prices alone. The extremely low cost of the first phase of Fort Meade Way adds another $300,000+ in savings. The legislature is considering a bill to give counties a slice of liquor taxes that would bring in over $100,000 in new revenue. I know that other counties in the state are telling legislators that they're falling behind on maintenance and equipment and are otherwise starved for money, but it's certainly not true for Meade County. It's partly explained by our growth in new construction and low crime rate. Another factor is our staff cuts over the past six years. The commission began the process with some staff cuts which were fairly vigorously opposed, but after the cuts happened, with no ill effects, the process gained a momentum of its own: departments which had not seen staff cuts came to us with their own proposed reductions, and they've all worked well. Good job, Meade County employees. All this is making me itch to cut the county property tax levy even further than what's allowed by statute again this year. I would love us to be the lowest-taxed county in the state. The other thing we could do with the extra money is road improvement projects. Stay tuned and let us know what you think.