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Clay County wants sales tax authority for new jail

Travis_Mockler_2021 SD Corn.jpg
SD Corn
Travis Mockler, chairman, Clay County Commission

The South Dakota Legislature is conducting a summer study on the need for regional jails. Committee members are hearing that small town jails are often old, and not meeting legal requirements anymore.

One of them is in Clay County, where residents are asked to vote in November on a bond issue to pay for a new jail and law enforcement center. The Clay County Commission chairman told the interim committee that relying on property taxes to pay for county jails isn’t fair.

Travis Mockler says 14 months ago, the county had to close its jail and is now sending all inmates who have to be held for more than 72 hours to Union County.

Mockler says Clay County at one time had contracts with Turner, Union, and Yankton counties, but now Clay wants to build a jail rather than rent space elsewhere.

This is the third meeting of the interim committee. Member legislators toured the Minnehaha and Clay County jails in the morning and met in the afternoon.

At other hearings, the interim committee has heard from small counties that building a jail is impractical because their area doesn’t offer support services for inmates or a pool of applicants to staff the jail.

But Mockler says that’s not as much of an issue where the county seat is in Vermillion, home of the University of South Dakota.

“Clay County has the healthcare facilities, with both Sanford and Avera, and Lewis and Clark Behavioral Health Services, along with multiple dentists, eye doctors, and personal counselors,” he told legislators.

He says finding job applicants is made easier by the availability of USD criminal justice majors and other students.

But Mockler repeats what others have said about building a jail: paying for it is tough.

Bond issues are funded through property taxes, and Mockler says that expense is too much to expect for property owners, especially in small counties like his, where 35 to 40 percent of the land is tax-exempt, used for the university, other schools, parks, churches, and wildlife habitat.

Mockler proposes a solution also offered up by other county officials at other meetings.

“We believe the easier way to pay for these projects is a sales tax that is specific to the project, voted on by the residents of the county,” he said. “It allows for everyone to contribute to the project, not just some of the residents.”

The interim committee will consider legislation that enables this proposal, as well as others, at its last meeting, scheduled for Sept. 20.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.
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