Flood road repair starts at $200k

Jason Ferguson
In a summer that has seen Mother Nature land continuous body blows to numerous gravel roads in Custer County, the Aug. 2 flood that raced from the French Creek watershed through the county before blasting its way through the city of Custer delivered the knockout blow to some of those roads, causing thousands more dollars in damage along the way.
At the Aug. 7 meeting of the Custer County Commission, county highway superintendent Gary Woodford said it is going to cost $198,000 just to fix Upper French Creek Road, portions of which were completely wiped out by the flood.
Lower French Creek Road was repaired by the time the meeting took place, Woodford said, with Upper French Creek work to start the middle of last week. People in the upper portion of the road could not get to Custer via the road and had to meander through the Forest Service on the road, which the county had to blade first because of deep ruts.
Woodford said it would take about 6,500 cubic yards of material to fix washes on the road and another 350 tons of surface material. On Lower French Creek Road, recovery was mostly gravel replacement, as three new culverts recently installed held up during the flooding, although a lot of debris and trash had to be dug out of the culverts. He added that America Center Road also had a culvert that had some washout that needed repaired.
The commission approved a resolution for a declaration of emergency in an attempt to receive government assistance in flood recovery. The declaration will go to the governor’s office before being sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, if approved there, on to Washington, D.C., for President Donald Trump’s signature.
The commission commended county emergency management director Mike Carter for the response to the emergency, with Carter saying there were many people from many agencies who helped in the response.
“The resiliency of this city and county is a tribute to everyone who lives here,” Carter said.
The first responders were lauded for going above and beyond in their response to the flood, while the community was acknowledged for the way it came together. The commission also marveled that no one was killed or even injured during the flooding.
Woodford touched on the commission’s decision to cease laying dust deterrent such as magnesium chloride down on private sections of roads, as the department has been so busy dealing with road damage from storms and other issues that it wouldn’t have had time to perform the service anyway.
Woodford said the public is better served doing large sections of county roads that need the mag water, such as in Pringle, Fairburn and Buffalo Gap, the end of Sidney Park Road coming off the highway, the first section of Upper French Creek Road and the Box Canyon hill.
If someone wants to lay mag chloride down in front of their home on a county road, the county will still blade it for them, he said. He said the county had been spending $25,000 to $30,000 a year on the cost-share program to put the mag water down in front of private property. Commissioner Mark Hartman was the only commissioner to vote against ending the program when it came up for a vote in the last meeting in July.
The commission discussed a proposed resolution establishing non-taxable structures in the county, which, if approved, will make it so that shipping containers, open carports not on a permanent foundation, all structures 160 square feet or less not on a permanent foundation and all structures not on a permanent foundation are not taxed.
Some on the commission felt the proposed resolution needs to be tweaked so it is not so ambiguous, agreeing that there will be nuance to the ordinance. Custer County has typically assessed everything on a piece of property, but this resolution has been brought forward in the hopes of providing some people some tax relief. The resolution was tabled for further study.
Along the same lines at the meeting was a short presentation by auditor Terri Cornelison about how tax money comes into the county and where it is distributed.
Cornelison displayed a slide that showed in 2016, 48 percent of the taxable acreage in the county was exempt from taxes (state and federal land, etc.) and 48 percent received ag status, meaning a lion’s share of the taxes were being paid by the 4 percent of the acreage that was non-agricultural.
Cornelison displayed a pie chart that showed which entities receive what percentage of county tax dollars collected, with the school district getting the most at 60 cents for every dollar. The county receives 29 cents per dollar, while the rest is distributed to towns, fire districts, road districts, etc.
Just as was the case last year, the county is staring at having a large amount of unassigned funds in 2020, with Cornelison saying the county is looking at nearly $1.8 million being designated unassigned in the 2020 budget.
Many who learned of the unassigned funds this year wondered why the county did not lower property taxes if it had so much extra money, but technically the money is not extra — it’s merely unassigned — and various factors prevent the blanket lowering of taxes.
Even if hypothetically the county had returned every dollar of its unassigned funds this fiscal year, it would have amounted to only $14 in returns each for property owners, and if taxes were to be lowered in the county, it cannot raise them again for three years, per state law, as every year the county must look at its prior request for levies, while being able to add growth — which is 3 percent this year — and the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is 2.4 percent.
Since expenses are hard to predict, if the county were to suffer a disaster during that three-year period, or if growth or CPI stagnated, the county would have no way to recoup that money.
In other news from the Aug. 7 meeting, the commission:
• Approved a resolution establishing requirements to qualify for agricultural classification of timberland in the county. The resolution requires that a landowner who wishes to establish that their land is used for raising or harvesting timber in accordance with codified law must file a forest management plan with the Office of Equalization that is either written and prepared by the S.D. Department of Agriculture or that is written and prepared by a professional forester registered with the S.D. Department of Agriculture. 
In addition, the landowner must file a certification of compliance prepared by a professional forester confirming compliance with the forest management plan. The certification of compliance must be filed with the equalization office every five years. Guidelines for the resolution requirements will be available on the county website soon.
• Approved allowing the board at the 1881 Courthouse Museum to have repairs done on the museum’s roof, as well as have chimney flashing replaced. The commission discussed adding more money to the 2020 budget for the museum to make sure proper upkeep is done on the building.

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