MARTIN | A county in southwestern South Dakota is about to go broke.
Public safety costs are skyrocketing in Bennett County, and property taxes aren't enough to keep the 101-year-old county afloat.
County Commission Chairman Rolf Kraft said the county is pinning its hopes on a request to raise $350,000 by increasing property taxes beyond that allowed by law.
Without the so-called opt-out, Kraft said, the county will spend all its reserves by 2015. At that point it will go bankrupt, and there is a real fear Bennett County will cease to exist, he said.
The county's financial woes are exacerbated because of the county's high percentage of tax-exempt tribal trust land. The northwestern section of the county lies within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The 2010 U.S. Census lists the county's population at 3,431. Kraft said only one in four people pay property tax in the county.
Like many counties in the state, Bennett County is up against the property-tax freeze. Sixteen years ago, the Legislature froze county property taxes and limited annual increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.
The 2010 U.S. census lists the county's population as 3,431. Only one in four pays property tax, the county's lone source of revenue other than grants, Kraft said.
"We have 858 taxpayers in the county," Kraft said.
One-fourth of Bennett County is Native American trust land.
"It's tax exempt," Kraft said. "In our case, 45 percent of our population lives on that land. They receive services, but they don't contribute to the tax base."
Bennett County Auditor Susan Williams said of the county's total 760,960 acres, 190,259 acres are tax-exempt trust land. An additional 16,555 acres comprise the LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge, she said. The federal government contributes payments in lieu of taxes to the county for the wildlife refuge. But these are less than half what the land would contribute if it paid property tax, she said.
"We've been trying to solve that problem for 20 years," said Dale McDonnell, a former Bennett County commissioner and former chairman of the state commissioners' organization. "Nobody listens to us. We're such a small group."
This year, Bennett County collected $2.5 million in property tax. Of that, $972,700 went to the school district, $143,600 to the city of Martin and $1.395 million to the county. The county's total budget is $1.4 million, according to Kraft. Of that, he said, $700,000 is tied up in public safety expenses.
Three years ago, the county averaged seven people per day in jail. Bennett County averages 25 people per day in jail at present, he said.
"We have a higher crime rate per capita than Sioux Falls does," Kraft said.
He ties much of the crime increase to widespread unemployment in Bennett County and drug and alcohol abuse.
Compounding problems associated with the cost of crime is the fact Bennett County has to send its prisoners to other counties because its jail closed about five years ago. Adults go to the 132-bed Winner Combined Law Enforcement Center for $50 per day plus transportation to get them there. Juveniles are housed in Rapid City's Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center for $225 per day.
"Our jail budget is gone already for this year," Kraft said. "Last year, we overran our budget by $150,000, and we're right around there again."
Bennett County already has eliminated cost-of-living raises for employees. It slashed another $40,000 from the budget by eliminating temporary employees.
"You run out of money, what do you do?" Kraft asked.