Commissioners debate tax assessments, jail project
By Katie Zerr-
In a meeting that was at times contentious, included heated exchanges and two executive sessions, the Walworth County Commissioners Thursday, March 13, tabled action on the jail project and decided to re-hire a full-time deputy assessor.
The four-hour meeting covered a wide range of issues including county land disputes and retirement of longtime county employee Roger Walker.
Walworth County Sheriff Duane Mohr again requested approval of $35,000 to hire HKG and Associates of Aberdeen, the architects that designed the proposed new jail project, in an effort to educate the public about the project. The firm would, through public meetings, explain the proposed new 34-bed jail facility and different financing options. The firm has worked with Mohr without compensation on the project and the contract would pay them to move forward with any further work on the plans and educating the public about the project.
The project is the $3.8 million demolition of the 100-year-old portion of the jail and building a new addition to the existing facility built in 1999. The new facility will be put to a vote of the people in November and Mohr requested the additional funding to move forward with the public education about the project.
Commissioner Duane Martin said he believed approving the contract before the people vote on the facility is like putting the cart before the horse.
He asked if Walworth County taxpayers should have to bear the financial responsibility for a 19-county regional jail. He repeated that the attitude about non-violent crimes related to drugs and alcohol are changing on both the national and state levels. He said it is not known how last year’s South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative, which changes the manner in which certain crimes are viewed and changes the sentences from prison time towards rehabilitation, would impact the jail.
“We are talking about building this facility when others are scrapping their plans,” he said. “If the state isn’t locking up the non-violent criminals, won’t there be space there (on the state level)? We don’t know how this will affect us. Why are we continuing to throw money at this when we don’t know what we are going to need in future?”
Commissioner Don Leff accused Martin of trying to get people behind his (Martin’s) objection of the new facility. Leff said the old jail is not adequate to meet the present needs and needs to be torn down.
Mohr said he met with the U.S. Marshals Service last week and was told the service would use any extra holding cells the county provided.
Martin then asked if it was ethical to use taxpayer money to pay a firm that has a big stake in whether or not the facility is approved by the pubic.
Leff said the public is entitled to the information on the project and the commission was obligated to make that information available to them. Martin asked if that information wasn’t available through the feasibility studies that have already been prepared and paid for.
Commission Chairman Denis Arbach said the jail is 100-years old and is archaic and dangerous to employees and inmates and needs to be replaced.
“I know the county needs a jail, I just don’t know what kind of facility we are going to need,” said Martin. “I am asking you to step back and wait to spend anymore money until we know what is needed.”
A motion on whether to offer the contract to HKG was put forth with Martin and Rick Godkin voting against the motion; Leff and Arbach voting in favor and Phylliss Pudill abstaining from the vote.
The motion failed on the tie vote.
Walworth County State’s Attorney Jamie Hare said he would research whether hiring HKG to present the information to the public was legal.
In a related issue, the commissioners voted to start setting aside surplus cash to pay for renovation needed at the jail. Walworth County Auditor Rebecca Krein told the commission she would need to wait until December to know what amount of undesignated funding would be surplus.
Martin informed the group he had received many phone calls on the tax assessment recently sent out. He said there have been problems in the office of the director of equalization for nearly a decade. He pointed out that Deb Kahl had been trying to do the job of three people and the assessments were not kept up to date. Mistakes made on the recent assessments have damaged the credibility of the office and he said it is imperative the commission take steps to ensure there is equality in the taxes across the county in order for that to happen.
He suggested the commission advertise to hire another deputy assessor to fill the position vacated by Michelle Hesselburg in February. He also suggested the commission approve overtime for Kahl and deputy assessor Jill Hoogeveen in order for them to be able to continue working on correcting the assessments. He said the funding for the overtime could be found by moving part-time help Roger Walker out of that office into another area at the courthouse and using his salary to pay the overtime.
Martin said the job Walker did for the office could easily be done using technology (for example Google Maps) to view properties rather than have Walker drive the county.
He also suggested outsourcing some of the appraisal work as only 40 percent of county residents returned the assessment forms sent out last year. Martin said it would cost the county about $64,000 to have the outside appraisals completed.
He suggested paying for that outsourcing from the $800,000 surplus of the Walworth County Landfill.
A heated exchange between Leff and Martin followed with Leff accusing Martin of trying to run the county and taking the assessor’s job. Martin denied both and said he was trying to get the taxation on an equal plane.
After speaking to Kahl, who said working the extra hours and having more help would aid in getting the assessments finished this year, Martin said he thought it wouldn’t be possible for the staff to finish the work within the year without outside help. Kahl said she is a bit hesitant about that because in 1998 an outside appraisal was done in the county and the results were not very good.
Martin said mass appraisals do work and urged the board to consider this solution.
“I am not saying you are not doing your job,” he told Kahl. “I am saying we need to spend the money to give you the tools to do your job.”
The commission voted to advertise to hire a new deputy assessor, but table further discussion about the outside appraisal and shifting Walker to another department.
Note: Later in the meeting Walker, who has worked for the county for 37 years, announced his retirement as of Friday, March 21.