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.
“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.
No. 1: Legion Lake Fire
The Legion Lake Fire burned 85 square miles in some of the most beautiful parts of the Black Hills. In December, the fire ripped through Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and private land, causing thousands of dollars in damage to ranchers.
A downed power line ignited the blaze on Dec. 11 about a mile northeast of Legion Lake in Custer State Park. The fire consumed about 4 square miles the first day and then rapidly grew the next evening. Gusty winds blew through the French Creek Natural Area, causing embers to drift more than a half-mile and sparking spot fires. Roads were closed, and hundreds of people were evacuated.
Ranchers in the area loaded up livestock and were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night. The fire destroyed outbuildings, barns and fences, but no homes were damaged.
It remains to be seen how the fire — the third-largest in modern Black Hills history — will affect tourism next summer.
No. 2: Mental health care in western South Dakota
The decision by Regional Health in February to stop taking patients with neurodevelopmental or cognitive disorders at the Rapid City Regional Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center shocked the community. But the decision ultimately lead to a broader discussion about mental health in western South Dakota.
The health care provider announced the decision in a letter and said that their behavioral health unit was not the right environment for people with those types of disorders. Seclusion and restraint rates at the facility far exceeded the national average, and Regional officials later said that was partially the reason for the policy change.
When the facility was at capacity Regional officials said they would contact the sheriff's office to "take custody of involuntarily detained persons."
Local law enforcement bristled at the idea of jailing people with mental illnesses, and a mental health alliance was formed to find a solution to the issue.
The West River Mental Health Alliance, which consists of Regional Health staff members, law enforcement and other local stakeholders, is working on a plan to address mental health issues in western South Dakota, but has so far come up with few concrete solutions.
Though previously critical of Regional’s policy changes, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom commended the hospital for taking the initiative to form the alliance.
“We’re going to try to find a positive path forward to get more mental health services in western South Dakota,” Thom said. “This is a beginning, not an end.”
Recently, local attorney Al Scovel has been pushing the idea of bringing a mental health facility to western South Dakota. He plans to try and get a bill of support sponsored by the Legislature this session.
No. 3: The death of Craig Tieszen
Craig Tieszen was a man who died as he lived. While vacationing in the Cook Islands on Nov. 22, Tieszen drowned trying to help his brother-in-law, whose kayak had capsized.
He was 68. His brother-in-law, Brent Moline, 61, of Rapid City, also died in the accident.
The news of Tieszen's death sent shockwaves through the Black Hills. Tieszen was seen as a man after whom others should model their lives.
Before joining the Peace Corps, he grew up on a farm near Canistota in eastern South Dakota. He sold some cattle given to him by his father to raise money for college and earned a degree in chemical engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
Following his service in the Peace Corps, Tieszen went to work for the Rapid City Police Department. After 32 years with the police department, Tieszen retired and in 2008 entered politics. He won four consecutive two-year terms in the state Senate until term limits forced him out.
He then won election to the state House of Representatives. He was serving his first term when he died.
“Most of us first heard about Craig’s loss on Thanksgiving, and for me it was a reminder to be thankful for our loved ones and for the time we’re given on this Earth,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said at Tieszen's funeral on Dec. 4. “Craig Tieszen made the most of his time, and we can all learn from his example. Our state is a better place today because of Craig Tieszen.”
No. 4: Spearfish house fire
The community of Spearfish awoke to tragedy April 1 when an early morning house fire killed five children.
The home on North Ames Street became a makeshift memorial to the children — Phibie Joyce Moyer, 6; Clinton James Johnson, 7; Rhylin Zane Gee, 9; Justice Lillian Gene Roden, 9; and Tanlynn Crystal Rain Roden, 11.
The fire began in the east-facing porch of the multifamily residence. A 20-gallon metal trash can that was used to collect ash and hot coal from the house's wood burning fireplace was found in that area. Investigators also discovered "cigarette smoking materials" that had been disposed of by the occupants of one of the apartments.
Authorities said it was impossible to determine which items started the fire.
"Someone once said from the horror of tragedy comes the best of humanity, and what we have seen this morning is an unspeakable horror, but some extreme professionalism from our law enforcement, absolutely from our firefighters and our medical personnel," Spearfish Police Lt. Boyd Dean said during a news conference.
More than 500 people attended a candlelight vigil for the victims on April 4, and their families received an outpouring of support and donations.
No. 5: Sturgis homecoming
Homecoming festivities were cut short in October at Sturgis Brown High School following a racist incident by some students and a swell of attention on social media.
Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said the students who painted a car with "Go back to the Rez" during an unsanctioned homecoming rally also painted the school and community as racist.
“That’s not what western South Dakota or Sturgis is about,” Kirkegaard said. “I can’t defend those actions, but I can try my best to make sure it never happens again.”
Photos circulated on social media after the unsanctioned rally showed students using sledgehammers to smash a car spray painted with "Go back to the Rez." One photo showed a young man above a caption that included an obscenity followed by "Pine Ridge."
Sturgis was supposed to play a football game against Pine Ridge but after a school board vote, the game was canceled and Sturgis was forced to forfeit. The homecoming dance and parade were also called off.
Several students were suspended in connection with the incident.
After the game was canceled, several Sturgis Brown High School students denounced the actions of their classmates and called for more racial sensitivity. To that end, the Meade School District has started programs that they hope will bring a better understanding of different cultures.
A Rapid City man accused of illegally hunting mountain lions by baiting them with dead deer has pleaded guilty to multiple charges.
William Colson VI, 39, pleaded guilty Dec. 15 to conspiracy to unlawfully possess a big-game animal, aiding and abetting prohibited hunting, as well as two counts of aiding and abetting unlawful possession of a big game animal, according to court records.
Each offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in county jail, a fine of $2,000 or both.
Colson was initially charged in February along with fellow Rapid City resident Mason Hamm, for several misdemeanor hunting violations. Colson pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors; Hamm’s case is still ongoing.
According to South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks authorities, the men placed five dead deer at Spring Creek Canyon, in southwestern Rapid City, to lure mountain lions between December 2015 and January 2016. The area is behind Colson’s residence.
Before the end of that January, Hamm had allegedly killed a mountain lion whose blood matched blood found near the dead deer.
It is against South Dakota law to bait mountain lions, as well as to collect, possess and transport dead deer without permission from the GF&P.
Colson, in a related Pennington County case, pleaded guilty also to five counts of unlawful possession of big game animal. The offenses, according to Colson's charging documents, involve the possession of two mountain lions and three whitetail deer between January 2014 and October 2015.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on both cases in February. Hamm, 21, is set to return to court for another hearing on the same month. Both men are free on bond.
While millions of Americans sit in front of their TV to watch the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square tonight, Collin Pina and Heather Rosete will be sitting in their car somewhere in Rapid City, trying to stay warm.
Temperatures in the city this evening could plunge to minus 15, one of the coldest this year, according to the National Weather Service. The lowest temperature ever posted in Rapid City for the month of December was minus 30 on Dec. 30, 1990.
Pina, 46, and Rosete, 40, have stocked their car with hand and feet warmers, blankets, quilts and sleeping bags. The couple, currently unemployed, said this is the first Rapid City winter in which they’re living in a car after losing their home and then the place they shared with Pina’s brother.
They once stayed with the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, Pina said, but didn’t like being separated since the men had their own shelter apart from the women and children’s home.
The couple spends most days inside a one-story brick building on Kansas City Street. The Hope Center, a nonprofit organization established in 2014, provides homeless people with a safe place to stay during the day, as well as assistance that will enable them to get out of poverty.
In 2016, according to the Center, it saw an average of 140 guests come through its doors each day, almost 50 percent more than in 2014.
Safe space and support
On Thursday mid-afternoon, The Hope Center was filled with around 20 people. Some were reading, others chatting and a few playing pool in one corner of the main room. There is no television. Near the Christmas tree that faced Kansas City Street, Pina ate a snack while Rosete sat in a wheelchair that she apparently uses to alleviate a spinal injury.
They've been coming to the Center for years. They talked about its free products and services, including haircuts, laundry facilities, luggage storage, daily devotionals and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Pina attends alcohol and drug treatment three times a week.
Beside the pool table were a closet and clothing racks where people can pick up whatever clothes they need. Pina also mentioned several churches downtown that regularly serve hot meals.
A man in his mid-20s, who declined to give his name, said he likes that the Center's main room is surrounded by windows, which offers a streetside view of downtown Rapid City. The windows also allow lots of sunlight in.
The Center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, except Fridays when it closes at 2:30 p.m. When the doors shut, the young man said he returns to the Cornerstone homeless shelter for the night.
Pina and Rosete, meanwhile, said they often go to the library, which on certain days stays open till 7 p.m. Sometimes, they hang out at Hardee’s, Main Street Square or walk around downtown. Someone recently gave them a Starbucks gift card, so they also can sit at the cafe before retiring to their car, which gets moved around various public parking spots throughout the day.
On Christmas morning, a man whom Pina and Rosete frequently saw at The Hope Center was found dead on the ground in the 200 block of E. Saint Andrew Street.
The death of 69-year-old Alan Jack is still under investigation, but it's “suggestive of hypothermia,” said Sgt. Dan Wardle of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and a deputy county coroner.
"He came here a lot," Pina said, adding that they last saw Jack at the Center a month ago.
The temperatures in the city on Christmas Day dipped to 4 below zero, according to the National Weather Service. On the same day last year, the lowest was only 10 degrees; the coldest Rapid City Christmas Day ever recorded by the Weather Service was 12 below zero in 1986, said meteorologist Melissa Smith. (The Weather Service records go back to 1888.)
This year, there have been two confirmed county deaths from hypothermia, Wardle said. In January, a 20-year-old man was found dead in a field east of Box Elder after driving his car into a ditch. The other death, also of a man, happened the following month.
Jack was homeless, and investigators still don’t know what brought him to the area where his body was found, said Rapid City Police Department spokesman Brendyn Medina.
Homeless people in Rapid City can often be found in public parks, as well as under bridges and along the bike path at the Greenway. These are the areas police officers will check when the temperatures drop dangerously low, and officers are either dispatched or they voluntarily conduct “cold patrols,” Medina said.
The police department is asking members of the community to call 394-4131 if they see folks who might be at risk of overexposure to the cold.
If a homeless person can stay with a family member or friend, police can give him or her a ride to the home, Medina said. If they have nowhere to stay, they can be taken to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. But if they’re intoxicated, they’ll be brought to the local detox center since Cornerstone has a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs or alcohol use.
Cornerstone’s main shelter, on Main Street, has 90 beds for men, including 30 designated for veterans. Right now, it’s housing around 125 people because the nonprofit organization doesn’t want to turn anyone away, said its Volunteer Coordinator Deb Berg.
Cornerstone appears to be the only homeless shelter in Rapid City, based on information from law enforcement and nonprofit agencies. In this freezing cold, every available space in the building becomes crucial to life. Sleeping cots are provided for women and children on the building's ground floor, whereas the men are placed in the basement, where the dining area is located.
On New Year’s Day, The Hope Center will be closed for the holiday. When asked where Pina and Rosete intend to take shelter that day, he said their plans were still up in the air.
“I haven’t gotten that far yet,” Pina said.