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Kristi Noem working on state budget, setting up cabinet team

PIERRE | As Gov. Dennis Daugaard says his farewells and winds down his administration, Kristi Noem is putting together a state budget proposal and planning the policy agenda for her first legislative session as South Dakota's governor.

Noem told The Associated Press this week that she plans to unveil her budget proposal in January. But after a campaign in which Noem released more than 10 policy plans on topics ranging from agriculture to government transparency, she's staying silent for now about her legislative priorities for the 2019 session that convenes in January.

The governor-elect said the process of looking at policies, drafting legislation and working with lawmakers will start in the coming weeks.

"Each of those policy platforms that I laid out were pretty specific in some of the reforms that I want to see and also where I believe that we need to find opportunities to partner in new ways to deliver better results," said Noem, who noted that all likely won't be accomplished in her first session.

Noem said she's looking for opportunities to grow jobs and economic development and invest in the state's biggest challenges, including drugs and mental health. After transparency emerged as a major focus in her campaign against Democrat Billie Sutton, Noem said she believes she'll propose sunshine legislation this session but doesn't yet have bills drawn up.

The incoming governor said she's focused on putting together a budget that balances without raising taxes. She said it won't rely on potential new state revenues after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in South Dakota's favor opened the door for consumers to see sales tax on more online purchases from out-of-state companies.

South Dakota officials celebrated the decision, and the state on Nov. 1 started requiring many internet retailers outside South Dakota to collect the taxes.

"We will not be spending dollars that we don't know for sure will be here," Noem said of her budget proposal.

Daugaard on Tuesday gave a farewell address and outlined his final budget plan, proposing spending increases for education, state employees and Medicaid providers. Noem said there may be a few changes from Daugaard's plan for K-12, Medicaid providers and public workers, but she didn't anticipate a major shift from his proposal. She'll be working on her budget for the rest of December.

In a statement after the address, Noem said she would work with lawmakers to strengthen communities and families while maintaining the state's AAA credit rating.

Noem will take office Jan. 5 and will give her first State of the State address to the Republican-controlled Legislature on Jan. 8, the first day of the 2019 session. Noem said her administration is setting up its team and cabinet officials.

Noem in late November named her chief of staff and filled key leadership roles for finance and communications. Not long after, she announced a slew of cabinet appointments and a talent search for seven major posts, including secretaries of agriculture, education and social services and commissioner of the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

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Fire crews ignite slash piles in Rapid City

About 30 slash piles were ignited Wednesday by a fire crew on M Hill in Rapid City.

The burning operation, conducted by the Rapid City Fire Department and the city's Veteran Wildlife Mitigation Crew, took place on the south side of M Hill in the Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park area. Pile burning also took place on the western slope of the Skyline Drive ridge above Springbrook Acres.

The pile burning at both sites is part of a program that has been in progress for the past three years to reduce fuels and the threat of future fires, according to the fire department.

“The hazardous fuel-reduction project exemplifies the Rapid City Fire Department’s desire to create fire-resilient landscapes within the city limits in areas that are at risk for catastrophic wildfire behavior,” Tim Weaver of the fire department said in the release.

The slash pile burning will continue throughout the winter as conditions permit, Weaver said.

The burn operations comply with city and county air quality ordinances and federal air quality standards, according to the fire department.

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Developer files second lawsuit against Rapid City

A Rapid City developer has filed a second lawsuit against the city of Rapid City in as many weeks.

Hani Shafai of Dream Design International and his legal counsel, Edward Carpenter of Costello Porter LLP, filed the suit on Nov. 30 in the 7th Judicial Court in Pennington County. It claims a city waterline leak “significantly impacted the cost of the development” of the Orchard Meadows Subdivision.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount in damages due to the leak's impact on the subdivision, an approximately 100-acre lot southeast of the intersection of S.D. Highway 44 and Elk Vale Road that has residential and commercial development. It is owned by a Shafai-operated limited liability company, Yasmeen Dream LLC.

In the complaint, Shafai argues that a city waterline leak of “at least 500 to 600 gallons per minute” continued for years before being discovered and shut off by the city. The leak, the complaint claims, saturated the development’s soil, created a high water table and led to unnatural wetlands on the land. The wetlands — protected from development by federal law — caused Shafai to suffer “the loss of several acres of developable land.” The leak also interfered “with the property layout and platting of the property,” delaying development and greatly increasing the cost of site work and construction, the complaint claims.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a similar suit filed by Shafai and Carpenter on Nov. 20, claiming that the same waterline leak created wetlands on another Shafai development, Johnson Ranch Subdivision, and delayed development of that site.

The suit also claims that the waterline is beneath Shafai’s property illegally, with no right of way or easement ever obtained by the city or the Rapid Valley Sanitary District, which installed the line in the 1970s before the city took over ownership. Shafai is seeking $152,000 in that suit for the loss of developable land due to the wetlands. He also wants the waterline removed.

Using Shafai’s estimate of 500 to 600 gallons per minute, up to 864,000 gallons of water could have been leaking daily from the waterline since 2012, when Public Works Director Dale Tech stated previously that the city believes the leak began. Should the suit go to trial, Shafai and Carpenter said they intend to present evidence showing that the “waterline had been leaking for several years prior to 2012,” according to the complaint.

Last week, Tech seemed to backtrack from previous statements when he said there was no way to estimate when the leak began, or how much water the leak constituted. 

“We don’t know how long it was leaking prior to the discovery of it,” Tech said. “We believe that number [500 to 600 gpm] is way over what was actually lost out of the line.”

Tech said 300 gallons per minute was a more reasonable estimate but even that was on the high end. Comparing records of water production on the day before the water main was shut off to the day after, Tech said records indicated “it was a very small leak.” At 300 gallons per minute, the leak would still represent an annual loss of about $650,000 using the city’s water rates from 2017 which have since been raised.

Last week, city attorney Joel Landeen indicated the state may become involved in the dispute. The waterline break may have occurred where the Department of Transportation rebuilt the intersection of Elk Vale Road and S.D. Highway 44, Landeen said.

Helmsley Trust awards $117,000 mental health grant to Pennington County

Nearly $117,000 has been awarded to Pennington County Health and Human Services for a study designed to examine behavioral health care in western South Dakota.

The grant was awarded by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. According to a press release, the county will now be able work with the National Council for Behavioral Health to assess the regional behavioral health system and suggest changes.

“We’re proud to support an alliance that is working to improve behavioral health care in rural America,” Walter Panzirer, a trustee with the Helmsley Charity Trust, said in the news release.

Earlier this year, there was some drama surrounding Pennington County's bid to apply for the grant.

On Aug. 7, Pennington County commissioners voted 3-2 against applying for the grant. The opponents acknowledged that western South Dakota needs more mental health resources but felt the burden to provide additional services should fall on the state rather than Pennington County. 

The commission, however, reconsidered the matter at a subsequent meeting after testimony from law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents and others pointed out that the grant would allow the county to collect data and only identify needs and possible solutions.

The commission then voted 3-2 to apply for the grant. Commissioner Ron Buskerud changed his vote joining Commissioners Lloyd LaCroix and Deb Hadcock who previously supported the measure. Commissioners George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto voted against it at both meetings.

As part of the grant, the assessment and recommendations will be presented in a final report to the West River Behavioral Health Alliance, which consists of representatives from 32 organizations, including law enforcement, hospitals, community mental health providers and organizations, local nonprofit agencies, and state agencies.

“When you sit around a table with 32 agencies, everybody has their own ideas and opinions,” Pennington County Health and Human Services Director Barry Tice said in the release. “We’ll bring in these experts from outside of Rapid City who come in with an unbiased opinion. They will collect data from all of these entities, which is a major undertaking, and have the ability to look at the bigger picture. Then they will determine what the next steps are for western South Dakota.”

Hani Shafai