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Pennington County Commissioner Ron Buskerud listens to Pennington County Public Defender's Office Director Eric Whitcher explain his budgetary requests during a commission hearing in June.

Commissioners denied a request to submit a proposal to a trust to support a study on mental health issues in western South Dakota, saying it's a state issue rather than a county one.

Barry Tice, director of Pennington County Health and Human Services, spoke to commissioners Tuesday, requesting approval to submit a proposal to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. 

Commissioners voted 3-2 against allowing Tice to submit the proposal, with commissioners Ron Buskerud, George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto voting no. Board chairman Lloyd LaCroix and Commissioner Deb Hadcock voted in favor of submitting the proposal.

Tice said the county was invited to submit the proposal, which sought to hire a consultant to collect data and study behavioral and mental health needs in the region. The proposal would have included an assessment of the current behavioral health system in western South Dakota, and recommendations for improvements. The consultant and study would cost about $118,000, according to Tice.

Once submitted, it would be up to the Helmsley Charitable Trust to approve the proposal. If approved, the trust would have funded the study. 

In a back-and-forth discussion, the commissioners who voted against the motion argued that studying mental health and behavioral health needs is a state issue, not a county issue. Buskerud also speculated whether a study would lead to expensive recommendations in the future. 

"I don't think the taxpayers of Pennington County should be paying to heal everybody in western South Dakota," he said. 

Commissioners Ferebee and DiSanto agreed, saying as long as the county continues to bear the workload for the state, the Legislature will continue to avoid the issue. 

"They will continue to allow us to take the weight off of their shoulders, until we quit taking the weight off of their shoulders," DiSanto said.

He suggested taking the idea of the study and proposal to the South Dakota Legislature. 

Eric Whitcher, director of the Pennington County Public Defender's Office, told commissioners mental health and behavioral health issues are already affecting taxpayers. He referred to people going through the court system who are deemed incompetent, who then often face months-long wait times before they can get into the Human Services Center in Yankton, South Dakota's only state-run, inpatient mental health hospital. They sit in jail during that wait time, he said, and Pennington County taxpayers foot the bill.

LaCroix and Hadcock also argued that more data is needed, sooner rather than later, and this study could provide that data for the Legislature as well as other entities. 

"The bottom line is, it’s data from western South Dakota. It doesn’t mean we’re going to open something, it’s going to help the people who are already working in this area," Hadcock said. 

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Online editor

Online Editor for the Rapid City Journal.