County assets sold; emergency responder districts explored; assessment complaints
The Meade County Commission has met three full days since April 11. During two sessions, it acted as the Board of Equalization. Among the items, I am reviewing are: sale of county assets; the possibility of a Sturgis ambulance and/or fire district; road construction, maintenance and a possible weigh scale on Fort Meade Way; decisions on property assessments and pending lawsuits. Due to the many topics, I am dividing this report into sub-topics.
Sale of county assets
One county asset sale has been approved: a communication tower located at the county shop off Fort Meade Way. There was only one bidder for the “Perpetual Easement and Land Lease.” Tower Co. bid $170,000 which was $20,000 more than the anticipated offer.
The county will likely complete the sale of its lone liquor license to the new owners of the Elk View Campground. The owner, Kickstands, LLC of Marion, AR, is managed by Kimberly Roberts. In March, the beer license at this location was transferred to Kickstands. Alcohol license holders must comply with all the state licensing requirements.
Meade County can issue unlimited beer licenses but is restricted to 14 liquor licenses. The motorcycle rally gives a premium to these licenses. The market value, however, has dropped dramatically in 15 years. The last license the county sold went for $500,000. Those proceeds were used to buy the Erskine/Primary School building from the school district.
The prior commission had hoped to garner a significant amount when this license became available. In 2015, it was offered via sealed bids with a $300,000 base value. There were no takers. That December, the commission passed a Continuing Resolution offering on a “first-come first-served” basis, the potential money maker for $225,000.
Meade Auditor Lisa Schaeffer, who accepts all alcohol license applications, said there had been no serious inquiries until Kickstands, LLC applied, then other potential buyers came forward.
The liquor application public hearing is 1 p.m., Wednesday, April 26, at the commission meeting.
Schieffer recommended the commission consider the county cash reserves when it comes time to receive these funds. It is recommended governmental entities have a balance between 18 and 40 percent of its annual budget in reserve. Meade’s level varies according to tax receipts, but is generally below the 18 percent level.
Funding Sturgis ambulance and fire departments
Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie, Mayor Mark Carstensen and Councilman Ron Waterland made a lengthy presentation about the status of the ambulance service, its future, and possible solutions.
The Sturgis ambulance serves 22 percent of the county or 500 square miles, and it is in financial trouble. It ended 2016 with a negative $521,071 cash balance.
Most of Meade County is currently in taxing fire districts: namely, Piedmont, Black Hawk, North Hanes, Box Elder, New Underwood, Black Hawk, and Doty.
Factors behind the ambulance revenue shortfall are: Medicare reimburses at a 50 percent rate; Medicaid at a 15 percent (often fuel costs are not covered); and uncollected rally campground charges.
Seventy percent of calls are within a six-mile radius of Sturgis. Two-thirds of the patients are men; 75 percent are over 45 years old. An ambulance rolls 85 percent of the time in than three minutes and is on scene within eight minutes. Ambulance staff is comprised of 11 critical care paramedics, four paramedics, 19 EMT-basics, eight EMT-185s, two EMRs, eight EMT-19; five EMT advanced. There is 24/7 on site coverage.
The ambulance is projected to lose $82,000 this year. $70,000 is annually needed for ambulances. The City of Sturgis annually subsidies the ambulance $119,000. It makes two $33,636 annual building payments: one earmarked for the ambulance barn; the other for the fire station. City taxpayers also cover the $85,726 administrative costs.
Call volume has more than doubled since 2009. In 2016, there were 2,137 calls. In western South Dakota, only Rapid City has more calls. It has an annual contract with the Meade County Jail to provide needed 24/7 for inmate care, medication dispensing and emergency transports. Ainslie said, people, who used to use private vehicles, now call for ambulances. The aging population leads to more calls. Due to Sturgis having Advanced Life Support, it is often intercepts ambulances from other areas. These situations involve individuals being transported by members of a volunteer service. They lack the medical expertise and advanced medical onboard equipment.
It was the trio’s belief an ambulance district is needed and should be combined with a fire district. The subject of the county only having one district was nixed by the commission. They believed the other taxing ambulance/fire districts were functioning as intended.
Financial assistance is needed from rally campgrounds. The service annually writes off $25,000. This loss does not include the cost for numerous calls and no patient is found. State law requires ambulances respond when called. During the rally, ambulance/fire departments are staffed by paid individuals on a 24/7 basis. Some emergency response units are positioned at the county shop for quick response. Patients often not insured and lack identification. Ainslie said, the crews are there to aid; proper paperwork is not their immediate priority.
To establish either an ambulance or fire district, 20 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election must sign a petition requesting one. The commission then establishes boundaries. This was an informational discussion, thus, no action taken. The commission in general favored a district. Four of the five commissioners now live in an existing district.
This city presentation was the first of many dialogs on this subject. City representatives are meeting with the Sturgis Fire Department board and the county association of fire chiefs. Ainslie will meet with county equalization department officials to determine proposed district boundaries. Once boundaries are determined, a proposed mill levy could be estimated. Sturgis taxpayers are expected to realize a tax saving because they would not be financing the ambulance and contributing to the fire department. Residents outside the city limits would have a tax increase of a few dollars to help cover the cost of the service they now receive.
The Sturgis Fire Department has a successful October funding raising plea. These donations help pay for its the operation. Spearfish residents recently adopted a fire district with areas in Lawrence County.
County road issues
Spring has caused problems for drivers on some county roads. It was a long, hard winter and the early spring rains took a toll. Roads with the greatest problems were re-graveled last fall, just built or have heavy truck traffic.
Highway superintendent Lincoln Shuck has instituted multiple testings of gravel to insure proper mix of rock and clay. He also added a new water test. Not all material has reacted the same with moisture. The goal is diminishing a slick surface, yet have grip and ultimately a smooth driving surface.
The Meade highway department members are slated to lay 160,000 tons of gravel this spring. The maintenance gravel will come from the Bruch, Hwy 79 Pit, Bestgen and Baker pits.
Road crews have been grading for a temporary fix on roads. When the blown-out roads dry, the department is going to pull up the road surface to get the gravel up; mix it, and relay it. If additional gravel is needed, it will be added. Some road reshaping will be done.
Major work on High Meadows Road has just been completed and guard rails installed.
Bids were let to build a nearly $1 million Weyrich bridge off Highway 34.
The dangerous Elm Springs Road, near the Anderson place, is being reshaped and the hill cut. That bid was approximately $100,000.
The commission reviewed engineer cost estimates on the Elk Creek/Elk Vale road project which is estimated to cost $6.5 million. Some of it can be done in stages. Naturally with a project estimated to cost about 40 percent of Meade’s annual budget, it takes planning. One option is to finance part through the state STP program. In return the county will not receive any more of those funds for seven years. Specifics are being explored and the highway department is getting rights-of-way secured. Adjacent landowners have the option to donate their ROW.
Truck traffic is tearing up Fort Meade Way and Pleasant Valley roads. The commissioners may likely adopt its first-ever gravel road weight limit. Officials are gathering specifics and it is on Wednesday’s commission morning agenda. Once a road is posted, the Highway, Patrol can cite overweight trucks.
Also on Wednesday’s agenda is further discussion on roads that may be mag watered. The rate for county-applied mag water for private individuals was set at $1 a linear foot. This is below cost but slightly higher than the current fee.
County residents can be assured the dedicated highway department members are going to have another busy year doing their utmost to keep the county’s nearly 1,000 miles in shape.
Two days this month were dedicated to hearing a couple dozen appeals about the assessor’s office property assessments. There is approximately $2.4 billion in Meade County taxable evaluations. Agricultural land, non-ag property and owner occupied (houses) assessment categories each comprised about one-third of the county’s valuation.
Major complaints in this category were:
Three liquor licenses holders wanted ag status. Ag property is not only valued at a lower rate, the resulting tax is much lower because approximately two-thirds of all tax dollars go to finance schools. The mill levy is also substantially lower on ag property.
The Meade Commission had determined properties with liquor licenses be assessed as non-ag.
Glencoe Campground owner Deborah Lopez contended its cattle grazing lease and size merited the ultimate much lower tax bill. The commission did not concur.
Sturgis Attorney Mike Strain represented Mike Ballad’s request for ag status on the Pappy Hoel Campground (formerly known as the Broken Spoke). He also questioned the assessment of buildings under construction. There was an adjustment to the value of 100 acres in a drainage ditch along highway 79. The area remained primarily non-ag status.
Attorney Rod Woodruff purchased the Lazy H ranch for approximately $1 million. He contends it remains a profitable ag operation. He also owned a liquor license at Sacora Station he transferred to 320 acres of this property adjacent to Fort Meade Way. He told the commission he anticipated Piedmont annexation and wanted to protect this asset. He does not plan on selling liquor. In other words, he is parking this liquor license until it can be sold to another entity. He was not successful in his plea.
Rapid City attorney Kent Hagg requested ag status for Elk Creek Properties. This southern Meade County residential development currently has 44 platted lots plus un-platted acreage assessed at $2 million. The corporation was awarded a multi-million TIF district a couple of years ago to offset infrastructure development costs. Hagg said a non-ag status puts too much of a financial hardship on the corporation prior to lot sales. The commission believed the TIF status separated this development from others.
In a semi-related matter, Hagg was at the regular commission meeting requesting a variance to Ordinance 20’s requirement for curb and gutter. He favored the lower cost option of culverts and ditches. A graduate student from the School of Mines gave his view that using vegetated ditches is a much sounder environmental solution and slows runoff.
On a split vote, the commission demanded curb and gutter, a hydrology study, and highway department review of the Elk Creek box culvert water crossing, before final plat approval.
Two Texas attorneys disputed the Hunt Housing assessment of 828 houses built on federal property at Ellsworth Air Force Base. This corporation has taken its assessments since 2011 to circuit court. A judge ruled approximately $15 million was more appropriate. The county disagreed. Further court proceedings are progressing. The county’s assessment this year was $28 million; Hunt requested $12 million. The commissioners did not concur.
There has been some vocal unrest in the agricultural community since the S.D. Department of Revenue demanded in 2013 that Meade County increase the valuations on two million acres of ag land for the first time since 1993. The across the board increase that year was 25 percent. In a single year, it raised the average acre assessment from $178 in 2012 to $217.
South Dakota ag land is assessed on productivity. SDSU's Economics Department produces the “productivity value” for the valuation system. The productivity value formula multiplies the gross revenue by the landlord share percentages, then divides this amount by the cap rate: (gross revenue x landlord share percentage) / (cap rate).
The values the state sent Meade County for 2017 assessment pegged top dollar crop land value at $1,196; average cropland at $938; and determined the average Olympic average income (2007-2014) per acre at $176.92. Top dollar for grassland was set at $458; average county grassland value at $141 an acre; and average rent listed at $9.35 an acre.
The Department of Revenue said when applying the values to each sub-set, the total county average per acre assessment should be $393. In reality, the Meade County Assessor’s Office reached an average of $348 per acre down from $354 from last year.
Kirk Chaffee. director of equalization, ordered an across the board 10 percent reduction in ag assessments due to the drought.
In the ensuing years, the SDDOR continued to demand increases in the 10 percent range.
This has raised the ire of Pat Trask and his daughter, Julie Trask, from Elm Springs. They along with attorney Lance Russell of Hot Springs, who is a member of the S.D. Senate, argued assessments need to be moved back to the 2012 level. They contend the state cannot force counties to follow its directives.
There is a lawsuit on this matter making its way through the court system.
The Elm Springs Township board appealed all land within the township including property not appealed by its out-of-state landowners. On the advice of its county legal counsel, the commissioners refused to act on property not directly appealed by its owners.
Earlier in the day, when ag producers identified an error in land terrain etc., the board made adjustments.
The Trasks said they were not interested in examining each parcel, they wanted to concentrate on the method of assessment and the state’s interference.
Landowner Jon Jordan, who has filed a lawsuit against the county, brought forward data he maintains is more accurate than that compiled by the state. He said the state’s data is based on faulty information, ag income figures are greatly inflated, thus, the average assessment levels are inaccurate.