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Water rate hike going to public vote
Last special election cost taxpayers around $60K

A final decision on whether to raise the price of water usage in Rapid City will be made by Rapid Citians in two months.

At Monday night’s Rapid City Council meeting, a special election was set for Feb. 20, after a petition to refer the rate hikes for city water to a public vote was verified by the city’s finance office. Increases in the cost of wastewater services are not part of the petition and will go into effect Jan. 1.

Led by Tonchi Weaver of Citizens for Liberty and carried out by a handful of other volunteers, the petition circulation efforts resulted in 2,387 validated signatures. Signatures from 5 percent of registered Rapid City voters, or 2,249 signatures, were required.

On Nov. 6, the council approved rate increases for city water and wastewater services that would cause the water bill of single-family residence to rise between 9 and 10 percent in 2018 compared with 2017. From 2019 through 2022, the rates would increase about 8.5 percent each year. Overall, an average Rapid City household’s water bill would rise by 43 percent over the next five years.

Currently, a single-family residence pays an average of $30.72 per month for city water, explained Tom Gould of HDR Engineering — the consulting firm hired by the city to study the utility and current rate structure — in November. Those payments were calculated based on an average use of 5,600 gallons of clean water per month. Assuming the usage was the same in 2018, Gould said that rate would rise to $33.74 per month. By 2022, the water bill would be $46.66. The current rates have not increased since 2012.

“It was an interesting experience,” Weaver said on Monday of the petition circulation efforts, saying she and others would begin posting information on the matter on in the near future.

“I myself visited with hundreds of people. They came from all areas of the city. They have a problem with moving to a resolution process as opposed to an ordinance process. We don’t think it’s a very ethical way to operate. They (the people) feel oppressed, betrayed, they feel helpless to do anything about it and they were eager to sign the petitions because at last it seemed they could do something about it.”

In November, Weaver expressed dismay at the city’s decision to put the city’s updated rates and fees into a resolution instead of an ordinance, given the lower public hearing and council approval requirements.

Resolutions require two public hearings — one before the Legal and Finance Committee and another before the full Rapid City Council — while ordinances require two public hearings before the committee and two before the council.

The council’s “Policies and Procedures” handbook labels resolutions as “any determination, decision or direction of the governing body of a municipality of a special or temporary character ... .”

“Water utilities are not special, out of the ordinary or temporary, and I think that is actually kind of sneaky to want to do these rate adjustments through resolutions,” Weaver said at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting.

At that meeting, city attorney Joel Landeen conceded that part of the reason was to make it easier to change rates, with Alderman John Roberts opining that the difficulty of changing ordinances may have prevented the water rates from rising, which hasn’t occurred since January 2013.

In the past, Public Works Department Director Dale Tech has called the city’s Mountain View water treatment facility “functionally obsolete” and stated it will need to be replaced soon, requiring that the city begin to build up its reserves in case of an emergency or ahead of any project to build a new facility. The facility was built in the 1960s and finding replacement parts when something breaks is nearly impossible, Tech has said.

City Operations Management Engineer Dan Coons has also stated that the rate hikes are meant to cover the increased operating and maintenance costs associated with the city services and to raise the city’s water reserve and wastewater reserve funds. The city hopes to raise the water fund to $6.6 million and the wastewater fund to $4.5 million by 2022. Currently, they are at about $2 million and $159,000.

With the special election now looming, the water rate hikes will not go into effect on Jan. 1, as was originally planned. However, since the city’s wastewater fees are not addressed in the petition, they will become effective Jan.1.

When asked to estimate the cost of the special election, Finance Department Director Pauline Sumption balked at giving a figure before offering that the last special election in March 2015, related to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, cost the city about $60,000.

In other action, the council:

• Authorized the city to sign a joint cooperative agreement with Western Dakota Technical Institute after the Rapid City Police Department received a onetime $75,000 microgrant from the Department of Justice to implement the Akicita program, a Native American specific recruitment program. WDTI will administer the program, using the funds to hire one staff member who will recruit and retain law enforcement students with an eye toward Native American graduates. WDTI has agreed to begin the program in early 2018, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris said, adding that more details on the initiative will likely be made public in January.

• Acknowledged the city’s sales tax collections for the month of October, which came in at $2,153,233, a 7.5 percent increase compared with collections in October 2016. For the first 10 months of 2017, collections are up 2.4 percent compared with 2016, at $21,080,478.

• Approved harvesting, i.e. shooting and collecting, 150 deer in wooded areas like Skyline Drive and western Rapid City, near the precipice of the Black Hills, after the city’s annual deer trend survey was completed in October. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department recommended harvesting 150 deer after reviewing the city’s deer trend survey results. The meat will be processed and donated to Feeding South Dakota. 

• Authorized an agreement between the city and Rapid City Summer Nights that would allow Summer Nights to operate in downtown Rapid City’s right of way from 2018 to 2022. 

• Authorized the city to enter into an agreement with the Community Health Center of the Black Hills to contribute $523,406 from the city’s Vision Fund toward CHCBH’s new consolidated facility, of which a 3,000-square-foot shell space is currently unfinished. 

Residents in Legion Lake Fire's path 'thankful'

HERMOSA | Jeff and Gail Harkey grabbed shovels and a garden hose to quell a lingering spot fire at the base of an already blackened tree on the banks of Lame Johnny Creek on Monday afternoon.

The fire smoldered along the mostly dry creek nearly a week after wind-driven flames from the Legion Lake Fire had jumped the boundaries of Custer State Park, less than a quarter-mile to the west, and forced the Harkey’s, their tenant, Dick Kettlewell, and other residents along the sparcely populated gravel road to flee their homes.

When the evacuation orders were finally lifted late Wednesday, all occupied homes along Lame Johnny Road were spared by the whims of the fire and the efforts of firefighters.

“That’s something to be thankful for,” Jeff Harkey said

But they did lose a wooden barn where they had construction materials stored, along with a small blacksmith’s shed and an outhouse. Harkey had parked a small trailer loaded with interior drywall sheets in the barn to keep them dry.

All that remained was the trailer’s scorched metal framework amid ashes and other debris. Twisted tin from the roof piled where the wind had finally toppled the burning structure. The creekbed running near their home is covered in white ash from the flames.

Harkey, who had knocked down another spot fire over the weekend, didn’t want any fires to get a new foothold in the remaining trees.

“Any little fire could just get going again,” he said.

The Harkeys had first been alerted of the approaching fire around 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 by a phone call from a neighbor. Then, as they dressed to begin preparations to evacuate, a Custer County Sheriff’s deputy knocked on their door.

“It’s coming this way. Get out of here,” the deputy told them.

Harkey said he asked if there was any use in wetting down the buildings before they left. “He said, no, just get out,” he said.

Kettlewell said the Custer County Sheriff deputy strongly advised them to leave.

“He said it wasn’t a mandatory evacuation, but as far as I know, just about everybody along Lame Johnny Road pulled up stakes,” Kettlewell said.

Kettlewell packed some clothing and toiletries into an overnight bag, coaxed his black-and-white cat named Domino into a pet carrier, grabbed a hard-drive containing his photo files and left for Rapid City to spend the night with a former Journal photo staff colleague, Steve McEnroe.

He returned late Wednesday to find his home of 12 years still intact. His only loss was some photograph easels and display tables stored in the barn. “Those brush truck crews really earned their pay that night,” Kettlewell said

Other rural residents along Lame Johnny Road and scorched areas between Custer State Park and S.D. Highway 79 lost hay and long stretches of wooden fence posts, and returned to a blackened landscape stretching from east to west along the southern horizon.

Ranchers were still evaluating losses to livestock, with numbers expected to climb because of respiratory distress caused by heavy smoke.

Harkey said other wildlife was showing signs of bouncing back. A large prairie-dog town just over the hill to the northwest had been spared by the flames.

“We’ve seen some animals come back already — rabbits, birds, livestock and we’ve seen some antelope tracks,” Harkey said.

Park opens 

Meanwhile on Monday, Custer State Park reopened on a limited basis as firefighters worked to fully contain the fire, the third-largest in modern Black Hills history, that had closed the park for a week.

Two main roads in and out of the park, U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 South, as well as the visitor’s center reopened Monday morning. However, hiking trails and interior roads remain closed.

Kobee Stalder, the park's visitor services program manager, said firefighters expected the wildfire to be 100 percent contained by the end of crews' Monday shift.

The fire consumed more than 84 square miles since it started from a downed power line on Dec. 11. Officials reported Sunday that the fire was 95 percent contained.

Stalder said slightly more than half the park was burned. He said officials are clearing trees that have the potential of falling into roads.

"Today's going to be a big assessment (day)," Stalder said Monday. "It's our first day our staff is back being Custer State Park staff, rather than firefighters."

Sutton seeks compromise on state records-retention issue

PIERRE | A state senator who is the only announced Democratic candidate for governor told a panel of South Dakota lawmakers Monday he would accept a compromise on how long state government records should be kept.

South Dakota doesn’t have a state law establishing a minimum period for retaining records. Instead state law designates a state board to set regulations.

The Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee met a dead end this year as its staff searched for old records from the GEAR UP program.

Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton, of Burke, is a member of the committee and is running for governor in 2018. Sutton declared several months ago he would pursue legislation in the 2018 session to require records be kept for a definite number of years.

Since that time, however, Sutton has met a dead end, too.

According to what Sutton recently told the Journal, the Legislative Research Council staff raised the barrier. Sutton said an LRC official told him he couldn’t release emails from his Senate account until each message was checked for information that otherwise would be private under South Dakota’s public record laws.

The private information then would be redacted, Sutton said.

GOAC legislators invited Scott Bollinger to testify Monday. He is commissioner for the state Bureau of Administration and operates what a government website identifies as the state Board of Record Retention.

Bollinger said state law specifically provides for what he described as “a records-destruction board.” The board, whatever its correct title, met last week.

Sutton asked how often records were retained online and whether more could be retained longer.

“We looked at some data and there are fewer boxes coming to the records center," replied Bollinger, adding that it was “my supposition” that agencies were keeping more records electronically.

Sutton asked if the state board could suggest more electronic record keeping. Bollinger said he didn’t know whether the board told agencies they could do more electronically.

Last week’s meeting marked the second year Bollinger was in charge of the bureau and the board.

Sutton asked about the cost for more electronic storage, and Bollinger said the state Bureau of Information and Telecommunications handles all of the electronic data, and the cost would vary by servers and other factors.

Sen. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg, said state Department of Social Services officials might have some idea. Cronin said female prisoners started handling electronic records for the agency at some point years ago, although he wasn’t sure about the date.

“But I know it happened and it was a good deal,” Cronin said. He wanted to know the retention cost for electronic storage and turned the question to Sutton.

Sutton evidently didn’t know or didn’t want to answer. Sutton instead said he wants to explore through BIT and some of the committee members to find a compromise.

Sutton said he hoped “there is some similar frustration” by other legislators in their inability to look back, based on their experience with GEAR UP. “I would be willing to work with you on what makes sense,” he told the committee.

Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, asked Bollinger whether the paper and electronic requirements were similar. She is co-chair of the committee.

“They wouldn’t change the time frame, but they might change the plateau on which it (data) sits,” Bollinger said about the possible differences.

Bollinger said a record is a record, whether it’s paper or electronic, and the law applies the same. He repeatedly referred to a standard of one year in the office and three years in record storage.

Cronin asked when South Dakota began retaining records electronically and whether it could be used across all departments.

If Bollinger knew the answer, he didn’t give it. He said some of the records kept in state agencies where he previously worked might have records dating eight to 10 years.

“I know — the exciting realm of record retention,” Peters said.

South Dakota Legislature to hold sexual harassment training


PIERRE | All South Dakota legislators and their staff are expected to attend ethics, professionalism and sexual harassment training that will be conducted in January, legislative leaders said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Blake Curd said in a statement announcing the training that the Legislature takes the issue of sexual harassment seriously, and it "will not be tolerated."

"I think we're setting the ground for the kind of behavior and professionalism that we expect," Curd told The Associated Press. "I'm certainly expecting everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to educate themselves and continue to ensure that the Legislature conducts itself in a professional manner when it executes the work on behalf of the people who sent us there."

Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton said in the statement South Dakota residents expect and deserve a government that's respectable and honorable. The training is the first step in the right direction to help make sure that there's a culture of integrity and professionalism in the state capital, Sutton said.

An aide to Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in an email that he supports the Legislature's decision to take the step.

The training comes after the Argus Leader and other news outlets reported on women who experienced sexism and harassment related to the male-dominated statehouse. The articles came after a former lawmaker and lobbyist shared stories of harassment and assault.

A state lawmaker who admitted to having sexual contact with two interns also resigned earlier this year.

The upcoming 2018 legislative session begins Jan. 9, and the training is scheduled for Jan. 17.