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The security desk in the Pennington County administration office. The Pennington County Commission has decided to reintroduce funding for security at public meetings after backlash from county employees. The funding was initially cut to help pay for raises for county employees.

Hannah Hunsinger, Journal staff

Employees at the Pennington County Administration Building in Rapid City say they are sometimes sworn at, shown the middle finger and made to witness fights among people standing in line.

But they have a tool to curb bad behavior among members of the public who come to pay their taxes, renew their vehicle registration or conduct other business with the various county offices in the building.

“Our famous line is, ‘You know, we can go get security. They’re right down the hall,’” County Treasurer Janet Sayler said during a Dec. 19 county commission meeting. “And people’s attitudes change immediately.”

So, when county employees were faced recently with the imminent loss of security in the Administration Building, they revolted with a barrage of written and verbal complaints. And the county commissioners, who had cut funding for the security from the 2018 budget, buckled and agreed to reinstate it.

It all began last summer as county officials were preparing the 2018 budget. Proposed raises for county employees became a point of contention. The county commissioners asked department heads to find ways of absorbing the cost of the raises in departmental budgets.

Sheriff Kevin Thom responded with an Aug. 28 letter to the commissioners. The letter included a list of $434,064 worth of cuts from various programs under his supervision, including law enforcement, alcohol-and-drug treatment, the jail, juvenile detention and a sobriety monitoring program.

One of the cuts was the equivalent of 1.5 security jobs at the County Administration Building. The amount of the cut was $72,869, and it meant that sheriff’s deputies would no longer staff a highly visible desk at the building’s main entrance.

Commissioners accepted the cut and adopted the budget in the fall. There was never a lapse in security, because the cut was not scheduled to take effect until Jan. 1. But commissioners fielded enough complaints from county employees about the impending loss of security that Commissioner Ron Buskerud put the issue back on the commission agenda for the Dec. 19 meeting.

At that meeting, some department heads argued for the restoration of the security funding. 

“Our customers at times get very upset when we can’t find the records they’re looking for,” said Register of Deeds Donna Mayer. “They get very upset with us and get angry. All we have to do is look at the officer that’s over there at the desk.”

The five commissioners unanimously voted to reinstate the funding, although they postponed deciding what part of the budget to get the money from. That decision is on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

Last week in a Journal interview, Commissioner Buskerud speculated about Sheriff Thom’s motivation for choosing to cut security in the Administration Building.

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“I guess what happens if you’ve got to cut the budget is that you cut it in places that hurt the most to the most amount of people,” Buskerud said. “You don’t want to cut something nobody cares about. You want to cut something everybody cares about. And I think that’s what he did.”

In other words, according to Buskerud, Thom may have anticipated the outcry that followed the cut and the resulting pressure on commissioners to reinstate the funding.

Thom, in a separate Journal interview last week, denied having any ulterior motives.

“When they asked us to come up with cuts, they asked us to find things we weren’t statutorily mandated to do,” Thom said. “We’re not statutorily mandated to do security. I outlined what I was cutting and why. I don’t think there’s any mystery to it.”

There is some mystery ahead, though, because Thom’s adopted budget cuts also included the equivalent of 1.5 security jobs at the county’s new but as-yet-unopened Restoration Center.

That facility, in a former National American University building across Kansas City Street from the courthouse, will house a detoxification center, sobering center, the county Health and Human Services Department, counseling rooms, various outpatient treatment programs, and the Crisis Care Center. The projected opening date is June 1, and there is currently no money in the budget for security.

In their separate interviews with the Journal, Buskerud predicted that Thom will find the money to provide the security, while Thom said the commissioners will have to put the money back in the budget if they want security in the new facility.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.