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Fight is on for $700,000 in leftover pine beetle money

A coalition of Black Hills lawmakers, foresters and other interested parties is at odds with the governor’s office about the proper use of approximately $700,000 in state funds left over from the fight against the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

The coalition of Black Hills interests wants to redirect the money toward proactive efforts to reduce the severity of the next beetle epidemic. The governor’s office wants to put the money back in the general fund.

The forum for the dispute is the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations. Last Thursday at the Capitol in Pierre, the committee heard testimony on House Bill 1120, sponsored by Rep. David Johnson, R-Rapid City. The bill would capture the remaining $705,101 from the state’s mountain pine beetle mitigation fund and designate it as a “forest health and resilience fund.”

“We’re asking, very simply, the funds that were put in the mountain pine beetle mitigation effort, which have already been appropriated and have already been purposed, just leave them alone,” Johnson said to the committee Thursday, according to an audio recording of the hearing. He is a tree nurseryman, arborist and president of The Johnson Tree Company in Rapid City.

Several other people also testified in favor of the bill, including other Black Hills legislators, Black Hills foresters and the Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce.

The only opponent testimony came from Laura Williams, of Gov. Kristi Noem’s Bureau of Finance and Management. Williams said state government spent $10.8 million from its general fund to fight mountain pine beetles from the 2012 to 2015 fiscal years.

“Now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic has ended, that money is no longer needed,” Williams testified. “Those remaining funds should go back into the general fund.”

Black Hills National Forest officials declared the end of the beetle epidemic in 2017, after the bugs had ravaged about one-third of the forest's total area and killed millions of trees since 1997. The beetles kill by boring beneath the bark of a pine tree and introducing a fungus and larvae that block the movement of water and nutrients.

According to Johnson, the federal government spent $75 million to fight mountain pine beetles in the Black Hills from 2011 to 2017, while the state spent $14 million, Lawrence County spent $3.25 million and Pennington County spent $1.8 million.

Although the epidemic is now over, that does not mean mountain pine beetles have left the Black Hills entirely. The bugs are native to the area, and the historical record is replete with infestations that have risen to epidemic levels on a cyclical basis. The end of the epidemic only means that the bugs’ numbers have dipped to a less concerning level.

Collaborative efforts have begun to make the Black Hills more resilient during the next epidemic. Research has led some observers to believe that a thinner forest is more resilient to the bugs. A thinner forest also contains less fuel for wildfires.

Backers of House Bill 1120 want the bill’s roughly $700,000 to be available as matching money for projects to reduce the risk of insect infestations or to reduce hazardous wildfire fuels — such as dead trees. Money from the fund would be limited to 50 percent of project costs, because the bill’s backers say federal matching funds are available for many projects.

Derek Larson, chairman of the Dakotas Chapter of the Society of American Foresters, asked legislative appropriators to be forward-thinking about mountain pine beetles.

“Entomologists have already cautioned foresters that our management today will affect the size and intensity of the epidemic in the future,” Larson testified.

Williams, of the BFM, said the state Department of Agriculture’s Division of Conservation and Forestry already has a $2.6 million budget from which it spends money to educate the public about insect and wildfire mitigation, and to assist with projects to make forests more resilient to infestations and fires.

Bill Coburn, chairman of the South Dakota Family Forests Association, called existing efforts “piecemeal” and said the money in House Bill 1120 would allow for greater collaboration across broader stretches of land.

“What we’re looking at is to try to think on a bigger scale,” Coburn said.

Thursday’s hearing ended with the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, deferring action on Johnson’s bill. Wiik said the bill will be considered as part of the committee’s broader negotiations on a budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

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Looking at the future of northeast Rapid City

What might northeast Rapid City look like five, 10 or more than 25 years from now?

Part of the vision for that already fast-growing part of the city could come from a meeting set for Thursday, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Western Dakota Technical Institute.

State, regional and local officials are seeking public comment to aid in potential redesign plans for three major traffic corridors in northeast Rapid City over the coming years, said Kip Harrington, long range planner for the City of Rapid City.

The three main thoroughfares involved in a study of traffic projections and land use alternatives includes Omaha Street, from Lacrosse Street to Valley Drive; Cambell Street from St. Patrick Street to East North Street; East North Street from Lacrosse Street to Eglin Street, near Rushmore Crossing Shopping Center to the north, along with a spur of Anamosa Street to the south toward Menards.

“We can’t be out there all the time. People who drive those corridors regularly, or who live and work in those areas, they see things that we might not know about and they’ll give is information that we can use in our study,” Harrington said.

The intersection of East North and Cambell intersection, especially the left-hand turn from westbound East North south on Cambell, tends to back up at certain times of the day. The intersection of Cambell and Omaha is also congested during the day as well, he said.

The meeting will be hosted by the Rapid City Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the State Department of Transportation and the City of Rapid City.

Harrington said the SDDOT is planning to redesign the intersection of Omaha Street and Cambell Street in 2022.

“Part of this study will help with the redesign of that,” Harrington said.

The study is looking at the potential of commercial growth along the traffic corridors along with anticipated growth in multi-family and single-family housing in the area north of Highway 44 and south of East North Street.

Harrington said an earlier public meeting introduced the project and with initial studies of traffic projections and land use winding down, it’s now time to gather comment on potential solutions, including the addition of turn lanes, through lanes or the incorporation of medians in traffic access control.

“These are options that are on the table right now. There’s been no decisions made. That’s part of this is to get an idea of what the public thinks,” he said.

For more information on the meeting, contact Harrington at 605-394-4120.

Rapid City middle schoolers progress to state math competition

After winning top marks at a regional middle school math competition, local students are progressing to the state championship in Pierre next month. 

Megan Zhu, an eighth grader from Southwest Middle School in Rapid City, won first place at the Feb. 23 Black Hills Chapter MATHCOUNTS competition at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She competed against 52 other students from seven teams, said Seth Keene, the chapter coordinator and a math teacher at Stevens High School. 

"They are our future scientists engineers and doctors," Keene said of Zhu and the other MATHCOUNTS participants. 

MATHCOUNTS is a national organization that works to overcome students' fear of math and develop passion for the subject. 

The top two teams — made of four people each — plus the next top four individual finishers from the Feb. 23 chapter competition will compete at the state contest on March 9, Keene explained. 

The first-place team includes Zhu, eighth grader Jessica Ketel, seventh graders Luther Busching and Ethan Meyer, and coach Crystal McMachen. The second-place team, from Georgia Morse Middle School in Pierre, will comprise of eighth graders Gianna Stangeland and Alec Venner, and seventh graders Jazzlyn Rumbough and Gunner Edson.

The individuals competing all hail from Rapid City schools: Eleena Rath from Southwest Middle School, Arabella Hall, from East Middle School in Rapid City, and Hyrum Brown and Hunter Davis from West Middle School. All are in the eighth grade except Davis, a seventh grader. 

The top four individual winners of the state competition will go on to the national MATHCOUNTS competition in Orlando, Fla., Keene said. 

He said most Rapid City teams begin training for the competition in November or December, and meet two or three times a week. Students also practice on their own using the MATHCOUNTS smart phone app and reviewing old test questions on the organization's website. 

Competitions involve solving number sense, algebra, geometry, probability and statistics questions, Keene said. Some questions allow students to use a calculator but others must be solved only with pen and paper. 

The Black Hills MATHCOUNTS chapter is supported by the Black Hills chapter of the National Society of Professional Engineers. 

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Sheriff: Meth driving up jail population even with reforms

The amount of people locked up at the Pennington County Jail continues to grow, despite new programs and millions of dollars meant to reverse this trend, due to the state's meth crisis, Sheriff Kevin Thom said. 

"Methamphetamine is driving the numbers," Thom said when asked why the jail population is increasing even though the sheriff's office and local state court have implemented reform efforts as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge

Last year saw an average daily jail population of 614 people for a total of 14,081 people (including repeat bookings) throughout the year, according to the sheriff office's 2018 annual report. In 2017, there was an average of 573 people in jail each day for a total of 13,687 throughout the year. The average daily populations for 2016 and 2015 were 499 and 479, respectively.  

In 2018, 1,220 people were arrested for methamphetamine possession compared to 893 in 2017. 

Thom said without the reform efforts, the jail numbers would be in "significant trouble" with even faster population growth due to meth-related arrests.

"We've deferred our growth significantly and had we not been t-boned by this methamphetamine crisis, epidemic, I think we would be going the other way," in terms of the jail population, he said.

Thom also pointed out that some of the new programs — such as pre-trial electronic monitoring, a bond assessment system, community work program and expanded Care Campus — have only been around for a few months and may show a greater impact once they've been in place for a longer time. 

In 2017, 486 people were sentenced to probation on condition that they wear electronic ankle monitors, a move that avoids sending them to jail. The monitors cost $15 a day compared to an $80-per-day stay in jail. In 2018, 361 people were on post-conviction ankle monitors, and 311 more people wore them after electronic monitoring was expanded in June to pre-trial defendants so they could live in the community instead of staying in jail while awaiting trial.

The meth crisis is also evident in how many people are using the Safe Solutions Beds and undergoing urinalysis (UA) tests at the 24/7 sobriety program, Thom said. 

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 25 2018, there were 4,755 admissions to the Safe Solutions program, which provide a safe space for intoxicated or high people to rest and sleep. It was located on LaCrosse Street, away from downtown, and had seven beds for men. The new Safe Solutions program opened Sept. 26 with 46 beds for men and women at the Care Campus in downtown Rapid City. In those last three months, the program admitted 3,838 people.

At the beginning of the year, 384 people a week did UA tests at the 24/7 Program. By the end of the year, it was 512 per week. Judges can order defendants to undergo UA testing so they can live in the community, not jail, before trial or as part of their probation. 

"We're not going to arrest our way out of the problem," Thom said when asked what it will take to start shrinking the jail population in light of the meth crisis. "We need more dollars in treatment, and we need more dollars put into prevention. It's much more cost effective to prevent it then it is treat it or incarcerate the issue."

Thom said he was happy to see Gov. Kristi Noem propose millions in funding for prevention and treatment

Other trends

While the adult jail population increased, the juvenile jail population remained steady with an average of 38 youth a day last year compared to 35 in 2017. The Arise Youth Center, a shelter for juveniles accused of non-violent low-level offenses, housed an average of 10 people per day last year compared to eight in 2017. 

Thom said he thinks state and county juvenile reform efforts have helped prevent population growth at the youth detention center.

The sheriff's office received or initiated 44,319 calls last year, compared to 44,238 the year before. 

Within its jurisdiction — therefore excluding the Rapid City and Box Elder police departments — the sheriff's office saw an increase in sexual assault reports: 119 in 2017 compared to 166 in 2018. Reports of stolen vehicles also increased from 32 in 2017 to 42 last year.

There were two reported murders in its jurisdiction compared to zero in 2017 and one per year between 2014-2016.

Like the Rapid City Police Department, the sheriff's office arrested fewer drunk drivers in 2018 than the year before. Deputies arrested 222 people for DUIs, a 29.5 percent decrease from 2017. 

Thom, like the Rapid City police chief, attributed the decline in DUI arrests to public education about the dangers of drunken driving and more people using Lyft and taxis to get home safely. 

The annual report also outlines what to expect in 2019, including purchasing a new drone and opening a new and expanded intensive inpatient drug treatment center and a bigger kitchen and laundry room in the jail. The sheriff's office says it will work to reduce its jail population with an automated court notification date system — which will help people avoid being sent to jail by showing up at their court dates — and jail population review team, which will continuously asses whether inmates can be released into an alternative program. 

Thom said he hopes the public reads the report so it knows how its tax dollars are being spent, and so it realizes how the sheriff's office collaborates with other law enforcement agencies and nonprofits.