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South Dakota has big voice on tax-reform committee
Group includes Thune and Noem, plus Rapid City-raised Brady

South Dakota could have outsize influence on the congressional conference committee that is resolving differences between House and Senate tax-reform legislation, with three people who were born and raised in the state appointed to the 29-member group.

Two members of the state’s congressional delegation, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem, are on the committee, making South Dakota one of seven states with at least two lawmakers on the roster. Another member of the committee, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, was born in Vermillion and raised in Rapid City.

All three are Republicans who will bring similar views to the negotiations, but there are numerous differences in the House and Senate bills, and Noem in particular has indicated a willingness to press for specific items.

One such item is the House bill’s eventual repeal of the estate tax, aka “death tax,” on large inheritances. The Senate bill would not repeal the estate tax but would double the current exemption so that estates worth up to $11 million could be passed to heirs tax-free.

Noem’s view on the issue is colored by her family history. Her father died in a farm accident, and she has said her family suffered from the application of the estate tax. In a news release about her appointment to the conference committee, Noem’s office described her as “a leading voice in support of the Death Tax repeal.”

The release also said Noem will focus on increasing the child tax credit, preserving the child care credit, excluding the Indian Health Service’s Student Loan Repayment program from tax, and including pro-agriculture provisions related to interest deductions and expenses.

“While there are differences between the two versions, I’m optimistic we’re coming at this with a united front, striving for the same vision of stronger families and a stronger future for all Americans,” Noem said in a written statement on her appointment to the conference committee.

Thune’s news release on his appointment to the committee focused less on specific provisions and more on overall goals, but he did highlight several items of importance.

“Both chambers have outlined our priorities, which include doubling the standard deduction, expanding the child tax credit, lowering tax rates for all taxpayers, particularly low- and middle-income Americans, and reforming our business tax code,” Thune’s statement said.

In his weekly column and in a recent speech on the Senate floor, Thune framed the two pieces of legislation as the culmination of a long struggle for tax reform, and he stressed the importance of putting a bill on the president’s desk while acknowledging that the bill will not be perfect.

“With Congress poised to pass the first major tax reform legislation in more than three decades, I believe we’re about to take one of those historic steps that will mark a critical point in America’s history,” Thune said, “and I’m excited about what it means for South Dakotans.”

Brady, who graduated from Rapid City Central High School and the University of South Dakota and worked as a chamber of commerce executive in Rapid City before moving to Texas, is the chairman of the conference committee.

Like Thune, Brady has focused his public statements on the importance of resolving differences and sending a bill to the president.

“This is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver on our tax reform promise,” Brady said in a written statement. “I’m excited to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate on a plan we can send to President Trump this year.”

Some of the conference committee’s work is happening behind closed doors, and there is no definitive schedule or deadline. Noem said Thursday during a teleconference with reporters that there could be a formal, public meeting of the committee this coming week, and she hopes a bill will be signed into law before Christmas.

Both the House and Senate bills would provide large tax cuts to corporations and more modest cuts for families and individuals. Although some estimates say the tax cuts could add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, some Republican proponents of the bill insist that the cuts will generate enough economic growth to eliminate the impact on the debt.


Safety concerns over homeless campus site

Several prominent community members have voiced concern over the proposed location of Rapid City Collective Impact's Transformation Center Campus. 

Their fears stem from the concept of congregating the city's homeless population in one area — in this case, downtown — and the public safety issues that it could create. The campus, which would include a centralization of city, county and local nonprofit social services, would span nearly four acres of land and buildings along much of the 100 to 300 blocks on the south side of Kansas City Street.

“What happens when you segregate that many people in one area?” Pennington County Commission Chairwoman Deb Hadcock wondered aloud in a recent interview. “What are you trying to create?”

Looking back, Hadcock, who owns Dimensions Salon & Spa at 429 Quincy St. — about a quarter mile west of the proposed site — said she was unsure if she would have voted to approve the county’s $14 million Restoration Center construction if she knew the Transformation Center would join it a couple of years later and few hundred feet away.

Though it appears unlikely that any decision on the center’s future will be made at the county level, Hadcock said she wouldn’t vote in its favor until her concerns over public safety were addressed.

Ka Alberts, owner of the retail furniture store Furniture Mart at 430 Main St., expressed a similar sentiment.

“To concentrate all of that clientele in the downtown area, I’m afraid it may lead to some undesirable effects,” Alberts said. He’s already experienced issues in the alleyway behind his store, which leads eastward to Cornerstone Rescue Mission.

“We just have a constant flow of transient type people that are digging in our dumpsters,” he said, adding that he often finds people sleeping near his loading dock in the morning. “It does draw the down and out, and the underprivileged kind of migrate to this center because of the benefits they can receive there, and I’m just afraid that it’s going to draw more.”

In a written statement, Jan Puszynski, interim president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, sounded apprehensive about the center’s proximity — about half a mile west — to the western edge of Mines campus.

“We at SD Mines very much support efforts to improve the lives of homeless individuals in our community,” Puszynski wrote. “We are concerned, however, how the proposed location of the transition facility will impact the safety of our students. Also, SD Mines would like to know how this proposed project would affect the city’s plan to develop the downtown area east of 5th Street into an innovation district.”

‘Not in my backyard’

Those involved with the project, though, appear unfazed by such worries.

“The fears that people have, the things that they talk about, the panhandling, the public drunkenness, those types of things, are already happening regardless of where we go,” said Collective Impact project manager Charity Doyle. “I know there’s going to be a perception that this campus is going to cause problems, but I guarantee you, right now, the problems people think it’s going to cause are already happening. We think that co-locating with the county, we can mitigate those problems."

Mayor Steve Allender said he trusted the research, legwork and judgment of Collective Impact's leadership and thought the concerns, though justified, may be overblown. Collective Impact plans to seek a one-time contribution of $7 million from the city to help buy the land and property that will house the center.

“To those who have already decided that this will be a detriment to the neighborhood, (they) are not listening to the experts who have been planning and preparing for this move for the last couple years,” Allender said. “On one hand, it’s expected and normal, and on the other hand, some of those concerns have gone way over the top, including those from the county commission.”

Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, who has been assisting with the county’s soon to be open $14 million Restoration Center just west of the Transformation Center’s proposed location, said the worries of area property owners were no surprise. Put it somewhere else, Thom explained, and you’d hear the same things.

“You get a ‘Not in my backyard’ kind of comment, and my question is, ‘If not here, where?’” Thom said. “The whole notion that our homeless are criminals is erroneous. Not all homeless are criminals and just because you’re going to have people in need down here doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to have an increase for calls for service.”

Thom explained that the entire campus would be enclosed by a fence, there would be a single point of entry with a magnetometer to scan for weapons, and that security officers would be on campus to ensure the safety of everyone.

According to figures provided by San Antonio Police Department spokesman Carlos Roberto Ortiz, the Haven for Hope campus — RCCI’s Transformation Center concept is based largely on the Haven for Hope model — required 1,003 calls for service in 2016 and 801 in 2017 thus far for its 17-acre, 1,600 bed campus.

Rapid City’s Transformation Center would span about four acres but the number of beds has yet to be determined. According to figures provided by Jegeris, the Cornerstone Rescue Mission required 544 calls for service in 2012. By 2016, that figure had dropped to 423 calls, with 356 in 2017 through Dec. 4.

Jegeris sat in his office on the fourth floor of the Public Safety Building at 300 Kansas City St. — directly across the street from the center’s proposed location — and used similar terminology as Thom while expressing support for the location and confidence in his department’s ability to keep people safe.

“You hear the term “not in my backyard,” and that’s a lot of what we’re talking about here, but this is right in law enforcement’s backyard,” Jegeris said. “That’s a win-win for everybody. If we do have a violent event occur, we as a law enforcement agency are in the best case scenario that we are going to have the quickest response time ever.”

Jegeris said that the location was not only beneficial for law enforcement but for the vulnerable population that needs the services, too. Other potential sites, including the Ziegler Building Center at 840 Centre St. across from the Central States Fairground, were considered. But the renovation costs, housing options and distance from county/city social and health services all made the proposed location ideal.

“If we don’t locate it in the right area where the vulnerable in our community have access to the resources, we are inadvertently being oppressive to that population,” Jegeris said before addressing Puszynski and Mines. “The School of Mines has always been somewhat isolated, and they’ve been working very hard to become part of the community. But being part of the community is you’re part of the whole community, not just that that brings you opportunities.”

Doyle said analyses had found that about 25 percent of the homeless population had a mental health and/or chemical dependency issue. People worrying about who the center would attract, she said, don’t understand the center’s programs and mission.

“They have to be clean and sober. (That’s the) No. 1 rule,” she said. “They have to be on a housing plan. They have to be on an income plan. So think about, with those rules, the type of person that this campus is going to attract. These are the people who want to get out the situations that they’re in, whatever it is.”

Day-to-day struggle to survive 

Julian Navarro was born in Seguin, Texas, about 35 miles east of San Antonio. Homeless for much of his life, when Navarro received a city trespassing ticket in his hometown a few years ago, he went to San Antonio. His first night he stayed in the Salvation Army. But when he was kicked out the following afternoon for leaving behind some belongings when doing so was prohibited, he was told to try Haven for Hope.

He went to the campus, about 1.5 miles northwest of downtown San Antonio, and listened to the process and rules. He’d have to stay in the center’s courtyard for 30 days before being allowed to enter the program, he said he was told. He balked at that idea after others warned him about the safety of such an endeavor.

“That was more like a battleground if anything,” Navarro said in of what he’d heard about the courtyard safety. “I think it could be better if they didn’t have it like that. If the Haven for Hope were to change that part, then it’d be a successful program, but I think that they would have to have people motivated, and I don’t think a lot of people can get that right now because they’re deprived of everything.”

The courtyard concept is not in any plans for Rapid City’s Transformation Center, Doyle has said. Navarro, who has been homeless in Rapid City for a month but was given a bed in Cornerstone Rescue Mission just last week, would seem like a perfect candidate for the center. Sober and motivated, he has appeared before the Rapid City Council at each of their last two meetings to discuss issues he’s had with Cornerstone and provide ideas for giving those on the street a place to sleep during the harsh winter nights.

Navarro said he’d heard about the proposed center but only that it could be here someday in the distant future. "I haven’t really looked into it a whole lot because it’s not in the near future for me," he said. "I might be here, but I might not be in that setting.”

He said others in the homeless population had heard of it too, but such plans, years away, rarely enter the mind of people struggling to survive day to day.

"I think that a quick fix would just be rent a building out and put some mats on the floor,” he said. 

Navarro has some other ideas too, like more case workers, easier access to identification cards and programs for those who don’t want to change. “They would need a backup plan for that part, too,” he said. “Like, ‘OK, You want to stay in the street? You don’t want to stop drinking? You can stay here.’”

The Restoration Center, which will see an increase in number of beds in the Safe Beds program that affords intoxicated persons a secure place to rest and sober up, would appear to help meet this need.

This week, the RCPD was notified that it had been awarded a grant by the The International Association of Chiefs of Police called the Collective Healing Initiative. The $750,000 in funding will allow the department to hire and create a detached unit of four outreach workers and two police officers that will be temporarily housed in the Restoration Center before moving into the Transformation Center once it’s complete. Focusing on the downtown core including the East of Fifth Street area and the city’s parks from Founder’s Park to Roosevelt Park, the unit would provide boots on the ground social work and case management.

“It’s going to be challenging," Jegeris said. "It’s not going to be like flipping a switch, but for many people over a period of a year of case management with this team, I think we’re going to be able to help make significant and sometimes permanent life change for people.”

Doyle asks for patience 

If anyone should be concerned about the potential impact the Transformation Center would have on the surrounding area, perhaps it would Hani Shafai, president of Dream Design International LLC and owner of the lots and College Station apartments being considered for the site of the center. From the Mines campus through the downtown area, Shafai estimates he owns between $25 and $35 million worth of real estate. In an interview he sounded not only unconcerned but adamant in his support for the concept and location.

"If I’m not worried about it and I have the most to lose, if it is that bad, why are we raising heck about it?” he said before answering his own question. “It’s fear of the unknown because they really don’t know the facts. Honestly, I don’t claim to know all the facts, but I ask questions and based on the answers I’ve received, I really don’t have any concerns.

"When you think about it, this is centralization of services, not centralization of criminal activities as people perceive it.”

With the preferred site chosen, the next step will be to secure a funding commitment from the city. Once that is completed, Doyle and Collective Impact will work to get commitments from the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, Hope Center, Behavior Management Systems and other area providers to join the center. Once they have a roster of committed providers, designs can begin, followed by renovations. Procedures and policies for the center’s programs have been researched and are continuing to be developed and refined.

The biggest message Doyle tried to get across in the near hourlong conversation with the Journal was simple: patience.

“We are early in the process,” she said. “This whole thing is going to take years, and we’re just a few months into it. All of those issues will be addressed and doors won’t open until we know that those things are mitigated. That’s the bottom line for everything.”

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BHSU to seek more funding for GEAR UP program

Black Hills State University officials and faculty members said Thursday they would seek another round of federal funding for GEAR UP services to South Dakota high school and middle school students.

The current grant will last at least one more year and possibly a second, they said. Their comments came during a report to the South Dakota Board of Regents, whose members govern the state’s public universities.

GEAR UP is a federal program, and in South Dakota it operates through a federal grant that reimburses the state Department of Education. The state department subcontracts with BHSU for GEAR UP operations at 23 high schools and middle schools on seven Native American reservations.

The purpose of GEAR UP is to make students and their families more aware of the opportunities available for further education after graduation from high school. The state department doesn’t plan to seek a third round of GEAR UP funding.

BHSU received the subcontract from the state department in 2015. The change came after state Education Secretary Melody Schopp didn’t renew the subcontract with Mid-Central Educational Cooperative at Platte. Mid-Central closed June 30.

Scott and Nicole Westerhuis, who were business manager and an assistant manager for the cooperative, and their four school-age children died from shotgun wounds in the hours after Scott Westerhuis received notice of the secretary’s decision.

State investigators determined Scott Westerhuis killed the children and their mother, then lit their house on fire and killed himself. State criminal charges for other alleged violations of South Dakota laws subsequently were filed against three other former Mid-Central officials. The defendants await trials.

Schopp, facing increasing scrutiny from a broadening number of legislators, announced she would resign as secretary Dec. 15.

The regents met Thursday at School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls. BHSU President Tom Jackson Jr. attended and introduced GEAR UP’s top management via video conference from Spearfish. They are June Apaza, director of the university’s Center for Advancement of Math and Science Education, and Urla Marcus, director of the university’s Center for American Studies.

Apaza said BHSU took responsibility for GEAR UP in late 2015 and spent the first half of 2016 organizing the program’s structure, hiring staff and building relationships with school districts.

Marcus said 23 schools participate on seven Native American reservations. Regional coordinators, based in the field, work in each school at least once a week, and seven districts also have local coordinators, she said.

Apaza said the summer honors camp lasts three weeks: two at BHSU and one week at Placerville camp outside Rapid City. The goal, she said, is to serve 100 students each summer.

“Every step along the way, you lose a few students,” she said. The purposes are replicating the university campus experience and increasing academic rigor. She said summer camps also were offered at three middle schools in 2016 and five middle schools last summer.

Jackson said the university would apply for a grant extension for at least one year and possibly two.

Several regents said the program seems to be successful. “I think it’s important to our state — certainly to our kids. It came from difficult circumstances,” said regent John Bastian of Belle Fourche.

Bastian said the program previously had been “suspect.”

“It’s a good program, and that was lost,” he said. “It wasn’t well-run before. It’s well-run now.”

Jackson said it’s important to continue GEAR UP services in South Dakota.

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Tiny Wyo. town changes hands again

The historic, way-station hamlet of Aladdin, Wyo., has a new owner — again.

The new owner of Aladdin, population 15, and its landmark general store, post office, bar and gas station, is former banker and financier Rob DeMaranville of Arizona, who struck a deal with longtime owners Rick and Judy Brengle earlier this fall.

The deal for what is essentially a whole town, located 18 miles west of Belle Fourche in northeast Crook County, Wyo., includes the 118-year-old general store building and a house on the north side of Wyoming Highway 24.

The deal also includes a trailer park and rodeo arena to the south of the highway. Not included in the sale are the Aladdin Motel and Cindy B’s Café, neighboring the general store.

DeMaranville declined to reveal the purchase price. “We struck a deal that’s a win-win for both the Brengles and the DeMaranvilles,” he said in a telephone interview.

The sale comes after the town originally sold at auction on June 2.

That deal, a purchase price of $500,000, eventually fell through when the successful bidders, a father and son from Piedmont, were unable to come up with financing, according to Laramie Noyce, granddaughter of Rick and Judy Brengle.

DeMaranville, son of Ron and Mary Ann (Kling) DeMaranville, has strong family ties to the area, spending his summers growing up and “learning how to work” with his aunt, uncle and cousins at the Kling Ranch near Belle Fourche.

DeMaranville said he knew the Brengles were trying to sell Aladdin and renewed his efforts to buy the town this fall when he learned the earlier auction sale had fallen through.

He plans to preserve the overall rustic ambience of the tiny roadside hamlet, named for the nearby and long-closed Aladdin coal mine.

“We want to keep the tradition of Aladdin alive and honor the Brengles and all past owners,” he said.

Those plans include some modernization with the addition of new bathrooms and septic tank. He also will build a covered outdoor deck on the west side of the building.

Plans also include weekly summer chuckwagon suppers, a town festival in June and an RV park replacing the rodeo arena to the south to cater to Sturgis motorcycle rally visitors.

The Brengle family presence will remain at Aladdin, with Noyce hired to manage the General Store complex.

Noyce was a natural choice as a general manager, with experience running the store’s finances for her grandparents and also working for the family fencing business owned by her father, Darin. “I already know the system, so I was his first pick,” she said.

Noyce said the on, off, on-again sale process took an emotional toll on her family. The Brengles had owned and operated the store for nearly 30 years.

“It went up for auction in June, and it was a horrible day for our family,” Noyce said.

The roll of emotions continued with the apparent sale, then falling through, followed by the eventual deal with DeMaranville.

“For me to like him, agree with the changes and keep it historic is just a huge deal for me,” she said.

DeMaranville, owner of RDM Capital Solutions Group, will close on the deal in April, with the Brengles operating the store through the winter months, he said.