Counties won't be able to break away from James River Water Development DistrictSD Senate panel says Brown, Marshall, Spink counties must stay in James River group despite management problems.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
PIERRE — Brown, Marshall and Spink counties must remain in the James River Water Development District, even though many of their county commissioners think it would be better to split away.
An attempt to let them create a new district was rejected Tuesday at the Legislature.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources heard testimony from Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, about the James River district’s management problems. But the committee decided, on a 6-3 vote, that granting a divorce wasn’t the right solution.
Other steps need to be taken, said Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center.
“If this happened in my part of the world, they would be tarred and feathered, if the allegations are correct,” he said.
Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, was more blunt.
“You got a problem. Fix it,” Vehle said. “Fix the problem instead of taking the marbles and going home.”
The purpose of water development districts under South Dakota law is to promote conservation, development and proper management of water resources and to serve as a clearinghouse for water supply and water quality projects. The districts raise money through property taxes.
The purpose of watershed districts, on the other hand, is to provide for flood control and a variety of other management methods. The two types of districts overlap in some responsibilities under state laws.
Novstrup was prime sponsor of the legislation, Senate Bill 160. It would have formed the North Central Water Development District.
Novstrup said there is an appearance of mismanagement and wrong-doing in the James River district. He directly mentioned the district’s manager, Darrell Raschke of Huron, several times.
Novstrup gave the committee copies of the recently completed report from the state Department of Legislative Audit that details a wide range of improper and questionable activities.
Raschke attended the hearing but didn’t speak.
Paul Symens of the Marshall County Commission testified in favor of creating the new district. Brian Johnson of the Spink County Commission also spoke in favor.
Johnson said there’s been “a very small return” for Spink County’s taxes collected for the district during the county’s 20 years in the district.
“The current system does not work for us,” he said.
Speaking against was East Dakota district manager Jay Gilbertson. He focused on the governing section of the bill, which would have allowed the directors to be appointed by the county commissions.
The directors wouldn’t have been directly accountable to the taxpayers within the new district. Gilbertson said there should be seven directors, based on population, rather than one from each of the three counties proposed.
Rep. Paul Dennert, D-Columbia, was the only resident of the James River district who testified against the legislation.
Dennert, who said he was raised on the banks of the James River, said his biggest concern was the three counties wouldn’t generate enough money to do projects on a regular basis.
Novstrup responded that taxpayers would be better served. He said continuing under the current district would be “inappropriate.” Brown County commissioners originally voted 5-0 and one later changed.
“There’s a message there,” Novstrup said.
Symens said the three counties splitting away is one response of many possible. He acknowledged the legislation didn’t address any of the problems and questions raised in the audit.
The current members of the district are the counties of Brown, Spink, Beadle, Sanborn, Davison, Hand, Hanson, Hutchinson, Marshall and Yankton, along with various townships in Day, Miner and Aurora counties.