Bennett County's woes seem all but unfixable
By JON HUNTER, Publisher
We don't normally think of a rural South Dakota county with a population of only 3,400 persons.|
When we think of local government failures, we often think of high-profile cases, like Detroit's bankruptcy this summer, or New York City's near-bankruptcy in the 1970s.
We don't normally think of a rural South Dakota county with a population of only 3,400 persons.
Tuesday, voters in Bennett County go to the polls to vote on a measure to raise property taxes. If the measure fails, the county might file for bankruptcy.
The county's financial situation is bad and getting worse. Consider these facts: - nearly half of the county's population lives on Indian Trust land, which is exempt from property tax, the main source of revenue for the county.
- the per-capita income makes Bennett County the 25th poorest county in the United States, of 3,144 total counties.
- Bennett County is surrounded on three sides by Indian reservations and Nebraska to the south.
- Crime -- and the cost of crime -- is rising. More than half the county's budget is spent on the criminal justice system and much of the crime is serious and violent, like aggravated assault, rape and attempted murder.
- The county's unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, which seems average, is dramatically understated, because much of the working age population isn't actively seeking work.
We don't see a logical solution. In South Dakota's history, counties have merged with nearby counties, but the nearby counties are also in bad shape, and could never take on Bennett county's obligations. The county can't just dissolve, like a business in bankruptcy could.
Some are looking for the federal government to help out, especially since the tribal lands were a creation of the federal government. But for any sustainable solution, the main problems of unemployment and crime must be fixed, and we all know how hard that would be.
We have compassion for the citizens of Bennett County as they suffer through a situation that seems unfixable.