The Minnehaha County Commission is opting out of the state property tax freeze for the fifth time in more than a decade.
The County will collect $4 million over the next 20 years. The total is the highest opt-out amount the county commission has approved. The unanimous vote means higher property tax. For example, that's $50 more for the owner of a $150,000 house.
Commissioners made budget cuts and whittled down a previous $3.2 million budget gap to $2.8 million. Because there could be some more budget tweaks, the Commission decided to go with a higher opt-out amount than what was previously estimated.
"Nobody wants to raise taxes, but quite frankly, I believe it is time," Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said at the July 13 meeting.
This past year's increase in crime has brought more budget demands from public safety departments that are trying to keep up. Milstead said the county jail is nearly full and that it costs $78 per day per inmate to run.
"With the kind of costs it takes to house those individuals, you're in triage mode to try to deal with this burden your jail staff," County Commissioner John Pekas said.
An overall 13 percent increase in criminal cases for the state's attorney's office has meant more court dates for the understaffed office. The State's Attorney has held off hiring for the last few budget sessions, but is worried not hiring new employees could have a negative impact on the ability to prosecute criminals.
"There's no more change in the couch cushions, there is not another rabbit in the hat. We are at a point where this is a crisis in the community," State's Attorney Aaron McGowan said.
Commissioners know county officials are not the only ones facing money problems. During the 1.5 hour discussion, they opened up the meeting for public comment from taxpayers. However no one voiced any concerns about paying higher property taxes.
And $4 million sets the limit of how much the county can collect, but that does not mean the Commission will need that much. Commissioner Cindy Heiberger thought it was better to aim high.
"This is a beginning. If we opt-out for $1 million this year, are we going to be back in the same room next year doing the exact same thing?" Heiberger said. "I just feel like if we opt-out for a lower amount, we're going to turn around and be back here in a few years saying we're just squeaking by."
One of the reasons the commission could use less than $4 million is because the budget is not final. For example, many criminal cases, including the seven murder cases currently open in Minnehaha County, are still pending. Because of this, final costs are unknown and not yet budgeted.
Commissioners said there are no more budget reserves to fallback on. Milstead said he has asked lawmakers in Pierre for the funding, but said they have shot him down.
"Perhaps this is where we got to go. We're at a level where we got to do something and we don't have a lot of options," Commission Chairperson Dick Kelly said.