By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – State’s Attorney Jim Sword wanted to talk with the Fall River County commissioners about how court-appointed attorney fees were a reflection of growing regional and state trends, not a county anomaly, at the commissioners’ Aug. 16 regular meeting. He also wanted to help the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program get some additional funding, since the CASA Executive Director Scott Bader was on hand to ask for county help.
Court appointed attorney fees
Sword, compared court appointed attorney fees, now and in the recent past – 2013 – noting how these fees were $117,000 for all of 2013, while current fees were up $111,000 in 2016 for Fall River County and up $10,000, to $88,000, for Oglala Lakota County.
Other counties are seeing the same thing, Sword told the commissioners: Custer fees are up $100,000 from 2013, Pennington and Minnehaha fees both up $600,000 from 2013. Statewide, these fees are up $1.5 million from 2013, he said.
“What Fall River County is feeling is what everyone else is feeling,” he said, due to the unintended consequences of changes wrought by recent legislation to the criminal court system. “Everyone is seeing an increase, not just Fall River County.”
Fellow attorney and Commissioner Mike Ortner groused in particular about 2013’s Senate Bill 70, a law which establishes alternative court programs for nonviolent offenders and classifies certain eligible offenses.
Ortner said that due to methamphetamine and similar drug crimes – he talked about a meth and opiod epidemic, how law enforcement is seeing “huge amounts” of meth showing up in middle schools across the state – the county is not receiving enough state money to deal with the changes the law created. Ortner said overall county jail numbers were up, while state penitentiary numbers are falling, and he talked about how a man (in another county) on probation for multiple drug offenses should have gone to the state penitentiary for these crimes, but didn’t. Ortner claimed this man failed 26 urine analysis tests and was released again and again, to continue committing crimes. Another criminal did essentially the same thing 16 times, he said. Judges, Ortner said, are basically saying don’t bother me with this; and the state attorney general and the legislators are at loggerheads over this rule. All of this is shifting the burden of dealing with criminals to counties, he said.
“This is kicking our (rump) locally,” Ortner said. It is also leading to more child abuse and neglect cases.
Sword agreed, noting how there were no other places to put these repeat offenders any more, other than in county jails. Yet he noted that many of these criminals should be incarcerated.
“You have to get rid of the (drug) fog first,” Sword said, “and dry them out before they can enter treatment. There’s no place to go. They still have an addiction, and will reoffend. The county is feeling this in a different part of its budget.”
Both Sword and Ortner also talked about the impact of dealing with mentally ill people on the county’s resources, with Ortner noting how the national association of county commissioners is urging states to create facilities to care for the mentally ill – a cost savings – because about a third of the people in jail are there for vagrancy and other mental illness-related issues. Trained social workers could help law enforcement sort these people from criminals and send them into care, if there was a place for this.
The one positive thing from all this, Sword said, is how his staff is committed to dealing with local abuse and neglect cases, and how they are working with social workers to make sure abused and neglected kids are placed with happy, loving families. He cited two specific cases:
• A number of years ago, an abused and neglected girl got help from social workers. This girl ended up graduating from high school and is now off to college. The county invested itself in this girl and he believed her success would return many rewards.
• In a more recent case, the mother of a very young girl and her boyfriend poured scalding water on the girl’s legs as a punishment, creating severe burns. The burns went untreated for some time, except for dousing her legs with vinegar. The girl was finally taken to the hospital – the parents were charged with abuse – then to a Denver burn unit, where doctors thought she might lose her legs. After $500,000 in medical treatment, her legs were saved, and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) is helping this girl make her way through the judicial system with good results, Sword said, “Sometimes the only people who have anything invested in these kids are CASAs.”
Court Appointed Special Advocates
This set up 7th Judicial Circuit CASA Executive Director Scott Bader’s pitch for help from the county.
Bader explained how the CASA program, begun in 1986, believes that every child deserves a safe, permanent, nurturing home. His CASA team facilitates this by recruiting, training and supervising volunteers who advocate in court for the best interest of abused and neglected children. The goal of the CASA Program is to have a “voice” in court for every child who needs one.
Bader talked about how CASA works in Fall River County, how CASA volunteers make sure kids are taken care of. Volunteers receive 30 hours of classroom training, five hours of court observation, and 12 hours of annual in-service training to keep them current.
Bader told the commissioners that CASA can help the county cut jail costs from kids who are abused and within about 15 years will begin showing up in the judicial system. Sword agreed, calling CASA a very worthwhile investment in kids, “invaluable” to his office’s efforts to help victims of abuse and neglect. Sword said CASA kids spend less time in foster care, do better in school, and have less contact with law enforcement later in life. Ultimately, this reduces the county’s costs, Sword said, because abused kids often end up in the judicial systems as criminals or abusers themselves.
Bader said CASA is looking at a tough budget year and expected to be about $55,000 in the red. While he had taken steps to reduce his budget – reducing staff from six to four -- CASA is seeking “non-traditional” funding now to make up for the shortfall.
Ortner said any money the county would contribute to CASA would be taken out of the contingency fund, and he volunteered to put an extra $100 into whatever the county decided to contribute.
Commissioner Joe Falkenburg agreed CASA was a worthwhile program, “a good investment,” considering what it costs to keep a prisoner in jail. He noted the county currently has 11 kids in the program at $100 per month. Bader said there were three additional kids who were not currently in the program.
Falkenburg and Commissioner Joe Allen offered CASA $500, plus Ortner’s $100, resulting in a total of $600, which was unanimously approved.
• Approved an increase in the county fire levy to .040 mills in the northeastern part of the county to cover Buffalo Gap Volunteer Fire Department. This came at the request of the Buffalo Gap VFD. The fire department noted that this levy would be the same as the Custer County levy, and that all Fall River Fire District Levys exceed .040 – Hot Springs is .475, Oral is .795. The VFD is currently covering the area for $1,000, which does not allow the VFD to break even.
• Approved a 20 year agreement with Black Hills Electric Coop to maintain the coop’s electric distribution lines. Coop Attorney Tracy Kelly explained that the agreement is basically the same as was approved 20 years ago by the commissioners of that time, and would require the coop to work closely with the county on how the coop maintains its lines. This only applies to public right of way lines, not to lines crossing private landowners, Kelly said. Private landowners negotiate their own easements with the coop to service the lines. The commissioners approved this, with Falkenburg abstaining because his granddaughter works for the coop.
• Approved a $36,500 bid to replace the jail’s air handling unit, which broke down earlier this summer. This is significantly less than the $50,000 cost Building Supervisor Lyle Jensen anticipated to replace the unit.
• Approved a resolution supporting the state Department of Transportation’s National Multimodal Freight Network. A national multimodal freight network effort focuses on reducing heavy freight traffic volumes, congestion and bottlenecks. However, as proposed, it increases the risk that rural areas become more isolated from good freight service, according to Kris Jacobsen, Deputy Director of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners, who shared a map showing how with the exception of Interstate 90 and Hwy. 79, the West River region is basically cut out of this effort. The state association wants to see more highway and rail miles in the national effort to alleviate this problem.
• Discussed a pay rate equalization with assistant state’s attorney Pat Ginsbach. Falkenburg said he was not satisfied with approving pay raises for some five to six employees on top of other raises given recently, and sought to have everyone on the same level. Russell agreed, seconding a motion to accomplish this. Allen suggested the county use federal or state agency position descriptions, performance standards and scaled pay grades, to handle county employees. Auditor Sue Gange said the city uses this system, and starts people at 80 percent of their pay grade top level, and bumps pay up accordingly.Ortner disagreed, saying that each individual should be valued accordingly because some people were simply worth more as employees than others due to different skill levels. Ginsbach worried about the county employee union collective bargaining agreement and developing a wage scale.
• Heard from Sheriff Bob Evans that the ankle bracelet program for the jail was not going so well. Evans said that Pennington County didn’t seem interested in including Fall River County in its existing program along with Custer County, and that he currently had about 20 people in the Fall River jail – none from the Sturgis rally, only locals. Evans also noted that he’d offered jailer jobs to three applicants and only two accepted the job. When asked how many people were on duty at one time in the county, Evans told the commissioners, only two – except on Sundays when one person was on duty. He also noted that two to three officers were patrolling the city at all times.
• Lauded Highway Superintendent Randy Seiler for his crews’ patch work on rutted county roads. Falkenburg said Seiler had a good thing going when his crews built a special paving unit to handle rutted roads. Seiler explained how his crews created a paving unit that lays a windrow of macadam patching materials down into a rut, and the crews follow behind, spreading this out, filling the ruts, smoothing the surface. Commissioner Deb Russell said this made for smooth roads, and she and Falkenburg urged Seiler to continue this on other roads with ruts, prioritizing those that need it the most, including County Road 79. Allen said the county should also look into long term road and bridge needs, but Seiler said the five-year plans being put forth by road crews across the state were not working out in many counties because the money for the work can’t meet the plan’s deadlines.
• Seiler also discussed how the state is looking into ways to reduce the estimated $1.2 million cost of replacing the Chilson Bridge. Allen and Commmissioner Ann Abbott suggested the county get its ducks in a row with future bridge repair work, with easements and other items, but Falkenburg noted that most of the other bridges were in good shape, but culverts would be the next issue. Seiler said about 50 culverts across the county were rusting out and in need of work, the state was going to shift this burden to the townships, but when highway supervisors complained to Pierre, this idea was nixed.