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Voters in cash-strapped Bennett County OK tax increase

MARTIN (AP) — Voters in a southern South Dakota county on the verge of financial ruin have approved a proposal to opt out of state-imposed limitations on property tax increases.

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Tuesday's vote in Bennett County was 349 in favor and 168 opposed. Auditor Susan Williams told the Rapid City Journal that the cash-strapped county used paper ballots that were counted by hand to save money. The process took about two hours.

The opt-out is designed to generate an additional $350,000 annually and save the county from the possibility of bankruptcy. The amount is about one-fifth of the county's $1.8 million budget for 2014.

"This is the hardest decision I have ever seen a board make," Williams told the Argus Leader. "They struggled and took the position they took personally ... they didn't do this without a lot of thought."

The county is surrounded on three sides by American Indian reservations, and about one-fourth of the land is tax-exempt Indian trust land. Officials also cite the recent bad economy and an increase in crime as reasons for the budget woes. Williams has said the financial crisis is the worst she has seen in 20 years of managing the county's finances.