BROOKINGS – There’s an old mariner’s proverb that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In financial terms, it means that an improvement in the economy will benefit everyone.
Here on the prairie, we talk about our wind. “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” one proverb says – and some Brookings County residents are struggling with an “ill wind” they believe could bankrupt their townships.
Wind energy has poured more than $300,000 into the Brookings County treasury this year, and it’s enriched the Elkton and Deubrook schools to the tune of a half-million dollars.
But what might be good for one person might not be good for another, says Sharon Leiferman of White, clerk of Richland Township.
Her township has collected some money from the wind towers that dot the countryside – nearly $11,000 this year – but Leiferman and her fellow officers in Argo, Oakland and Lake Hendricks townships fear the cost of maintaining roads for the county’s three wind farms is going to drive them into insolvency.
They’d like some financial help from the county – a much bigger share of the wind profits.
A May 31 Register story that began “The winds in Brookings County are blowing dollar bills these days …” brought howls of protest from the township leaders, who say they’re being left behind in the wind energy sweepstakes. Township financials are in tough shape, and they have been for a long time.
While the county’s three wind farms returned almost $900,000 in tax money to various recipients this year, the four home townships got checks for less than $38,000 – and they’re the ones who have to maintain and plow the roads leading to the towers.
In a recent gathering of representatives from the townships and some of their neighbors, the rural officials testified that the added burdens imposed by the turbines are draining their treasuries.
Oaklake, for example, has a township budget of about $32,000. A single culvert the township had to replace last year cost $9,000. Add to that the costs for road gravel, repair and snow removal, and the budget is exhausted.
“Wages haven’t increased, but everything else has,” says Norris Patrick, Oaklake Township clerk.
Argo residents Mike Olson, Joel Ripley and Mark Johnson agree: over the past five years, culvert prices have doubled, as have gas prices for their road equipment.
Another township had $42,000 available for all of its expenses last year, but it wound up spending $63,000.
“We’re losing our infrastructure,” the township leaders complain. “We’re postponing maintenance, and there are muddy spots in our roads.”
The heavier traffic is causing the townships to liquidate their reserves, and once they’ve cashed in their CDs, there’s nowhere else to go, except to hike their own taxes.
It isn’t uncommon for a township officer to write a personal check to cover a road expenditure and hope for reimbursement later.
Some townships are so financially strapped they’ve looked into dissolving the local structure and letting the county take over.
The costs of maintaining the tower roads may be the last straw for the townships.
“We have to get the roads open,” says Oaklake’s Patrick, “and that puts us between a rock and a hard place. The wind towers must be accessible 24 hours a day for fire and ambulance service. They’re entitled to the service, but there should be a more equitable spread (of the wind tax revenues). Something’s got to give.”
As they see it, the four wind-turbine townships currently are getting between $5,000 and $13,000 per year from the wind taxes – from which they have to fund road maintenance – but the county’s 2012 share was more than $319,000.
Even more galling is the fact that Deubrook School District collected $387,000 and Elkton Schools $132,000.
Nobody begrudges school funding, the leaders say, but these districts enjoy a do-nothing windfall while townships are required to service the wind tower roads and are going broke doing it.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem equitable.
Even worse, the State of South Dakota keeps a healthy chunk of the wind-tower revenue for “economic development,” and it doesn’t do a thing to assist the township governments.
“The state winds up keeping 80 percent (of the gross receipts tax), and what’s left over, we’re fighting for scraps,” says Leiferman.
Opt out of freeze?
Patrick, who has been a spokesman for Oaklake Township, says that rural residents have been told they can opt out of the tax freeze if they feel their budgets are too pinched.
“That would double our taxes,” Patrick said, “and ag land taxes are already too high – people can’t pay more. Even if we doubled our own taxes to provide these services to others, the county and the state would still not be willing to help us.”
The county has collected a lot of money, another township officer commented. “All we say is that the wind tax should pay for increased traffic on roads.”
Richland’s Leiferman puts it simply: “The reason we’re fighting over wind money is that we have no other source of money.”
The townships have been unsuccessful in getting Pierre to resolve the problem, even though they’ve taken the matter to three different legislative sessions, asking for a fairer shake.
The leadership is generally distrustful of the county commission, because the officials think the commission hasn’t been responsive to their needs.
“They’ve always told us there would be a helping hand for townships,” one officer said, “that they’d always be willing to help. But when we asked for this, they wouldn’t listen to us.”
That may be more perception than reality, because the county commission has studied the problem and is actively considering some type of road assistance program, possibly linked to rural economic development, such as new dairies or feedlot operations. Those agribusinesses can be hard on rural roads, and some county assistance would be justified.
But unless the townships can get some help with their roads now, “landowners might choose to discourage economic development in the county.”
“We just can’t afford it.”
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