Paying its fair share?

Jason Ferguson

Custer State Park is 71,000 acres of splendor that draws millions of people to Custer County annually.
It can also be a financial burden to Custer County, the Custer County Commission believes.
Because of that, the commission will send a letter to Kevin Robling, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game Fish and Parks, requesting the state pony up more money for the county to help pay for all of the services it indirectly provides to the park, as well as all the lost property tax money the county would receive if the park were private property, and thereby subject to property taxes.
Cited in the letter are the Custer County Sheriff’s Office’s frequent trips to the park, along with Custer County Search and Rescue and various local volunteer fire departments.
“Custer County’s current population is 8,609 people, and Custer County landowners are required to pay ad valorem property taxes to support the services that our county is required to provide for the health, safety and education of our citizens and visitors,” the letter states. “We have consistently provided such services in a consistent and high quality manner. However, we are finding these services are being overwhelmed by the increased needs of the patrons to Custer State Park.”
As reported in the state’s annual report, Custer State Park had 2.3 million visitors, and the state received $24,350,000 in park entrance and camping fees. This does not include revenue from other hospitality goods and services provided.
The letter points out the sheriff’s office recently took over law enforcement services for the Town of Hermosa, and required the town pay $80,000 to do so for its 382 residents. Custer State Park, meanwhile, pays the county $7,500 per year for sheriff’s office services.
The letter goes on to say the county is in the process of forming a large fire district for additional taxation funding to support fire protection services and potentially housing paid staff at the Custer Volunteer Fire Department because of the increasing volume of response calls, which includes calls within the park’s boundary.
“Our volunteer fire departments are taxed with a response burden that they cannot keep up with,” the letter reads.
The letter points out Battle Creek Fire District has an annual budget of $550,000 for fire protection and emergency response. The Custer Volunteer Fire Department receives $7,500 from the park annually for its services.
The largest part of the county’s property taxes go toward paying for operation of the Custer School District, the letter says, “where Custer State Park pays zero dollars to our schools to educate our children, which is the future of our community.”
The letter further points out Custer State Park is in direct competition with business in Custer County, specifically restaurants, campgrounds, hotels and retail.
The county does not receive any sales tax spent by visitors to the park or taxes collected in the City of Custer from park visitors who end up spending money in town. Its budget is made up through the collection of property taxes and other fees.
“As you can see, Custer State Park is not anywhere close to paying for the services received from our county,” the letter states. “Custer State Park is not only in competition with the private sector in Custer County but Custer State Park is competing tax-free.”
Therefore, the letter states, the commission would like to see the state retain a third party to value the land and structures at the park and use that value to provide a payment in lieu of taxes to cover services the county provides to the park.
Commissioner Mark Hartman said the expenses the county’s highway department incurs due to park traffic could also be mentioned in the letter, although the state did start providing some funding to the county to help with  work on roads going in and out of the park.
“Google Maps is killing us, guys,” county highway superintendent Jess Doyle said. “We see the influx in traffic. People are sneaking in the back way on county roads so they don’t have to pay the entrance fee to get into the park.”
Lintz said a copy of the letter would also be sent to Gov. Kristi Noem, Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, all of the state’s Game, Fish & Parks commissioners and state legislature District 30 representatives.
“If they (Game, Fish & Parks) don’t recognize us as a factor, then we will go to the legislature,” Lintz said. “I think we need to hold their feet to the fire.”
In other news from the Jan. 4 meeting, the commission:
• Welcome aboard new commissioner Mike Busskohl, while reelecting Lintz as commission chairman and Hartman commission vice chair.
• Raised the per diem for meals for employees on county business to $55 per day from $40 per day, and the pay of county election workers to $16.50 per hour.

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