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Friday, August 31, 2007

SDHSAA "Absolutely Crazy" -- SDWC on Felons in Football

Who says conservatives and liberals can't agree? South Dakota War College weighs in with its own disgust and disbelief at the SDSHAA's granting "special dispensation" to a convicted felon to play children's games at West Central. It's good to know that others can see through Jerome Hunt's victim act:

Attempted Rape is a crime of violence against others, not the basis for “hardship criteria.”If someone was convicted of “attempted” child molestation, would we grant them special dispensation to work in a day care center because it was a “hardship” for them to do something else?

NO! Because that’s crazy talk! [PP, "What Was the SDHSAA Thinking Putting a Fox Back in the henhouse?" SDWC, 2007.08.31.]

Conservatives and liberals alike can see the need for educators and courts to stand up to bullies and not give them special privileges. Whatever the motives behind granting this special dispensation to a convicted felon, the SDHSAA needs to revisit its decision and consider correcting its error, for the sake of principle and student safety. If that can't happen, coaches and administrators at other schools should consider whether they want to take the risk of putting their athletes and fans in the same building as a convicted felon and bully.

The Hardship of Being a Bully

I don't like giving convicted sex offenders much press, but Jerome Hunt's story stinks too much not to comment. The Argus today runs comments from Hunt's lawyer and the SDSHAA shedding some more light on how this convicted adult skipped school all last year but now gets to play children's games at West Central for another year. We learn that Hunt considers himself a victim, and that the SDSHAA, appallingly, has fallen for it. Among the highlights:

On KELO Monday, West Central Superintendent Paul Gausman made it sound like his district had no power to deny Hunt's open enrollment application. But evidently that didn't stop the Sioux Falls School District from finding a way to keep him out:

Hunt's lawyer, Mike Butler, said they first looked to enroll Hunt in a Sioux Falls public school but went elsewhere when the district's administration made it clear he would not be welcome."West Central, by far and away, was the most welcoming," Butler said, describing the reception in Sioux Falls as "nothing short of appalling."

Bill Smith, who Butler singled out as discouraging Hunt's enrollment in Sioux Falls, said what Butler alleges is not accurate. Smith, the district's director of instructional support services, declined to comment further because of student privacy practices. [Josh Verges, "Convicted Wrestling Champ Back in High School Sports," ArgusLeader.com, 2007.08.31]

Don't feel like you have to apologize, Mr. Smith: I suspect that if your district did give Hunt and his lawyer an off-putting reception, a vast majority of your district's parents and students are quietly thanking you. (By the way, Messrs. Butler and Hunt: when West Central brings Hunt to Madison for a game on September 21, don't expect the Madville Times or other parents to extend a welcome, either.)

Today's article reminds us that Hunt was convicted of attempted rape, not rape itself, and not required to register as a sex offender, as the judge held that Hunt's motivations weren't sexual. Great -- his motivation apparently was pure bullying, the desire for physical and emotional dominance over others. That doesn't sound like the sort of spirit we want in gentlemanly competition. Among the many things that appalls me is that Hunt couldn't satisfy his craving for dominance by channeling it into healthy competition and fair victories over opponents from other schools; he had to engage in filthy behavior that degraded his own teammates. If I were a student at West Central, I'd be nervous having Hunt in the same classroom or locker room. If I were a parent, I wouldn't put my student in that situation; I'd be reaching for the open enrollment form.

Shockingly, it appears the South Dakota High School Activities Association has bent the rules to let this convicted adult come back and play children's games. Had the SDHSAA been acting in strict accordance with its rules -- "We don't feel comfortable letting this convicted adult play high school football, but we have to follow our rules, which don't forbid it" -- I might have cut the organization some slack. But as Verges reports,

On Aug. 23, association executive director Wayne Carney granted Hunt's request, waiving a requirement that an athlete's eight semesters be consecutive.

"Waived a requirement" -- in other words, the SDHSAA had a rule (SDHSAA By-Laws, Chapter I, Part IV, Section 1, Clause (c) -- "Eight Semester Rule" -- p. 8) that would have kept Hunt off the field but decided not to follow it. (The SDSHAA does formally allow itself to waive its own rules: see SDHSAA Constitution, Article VII, Section 3, Clause (l), page 4. Note in the same section Clause (n), which states "Any waiver request that is submitted to the Board
of Directors or Executive Director must be initiated by a member school." Hmm... West Central must have really wanted hunt to play.) Just as bad:

Carney said Hunt's appeal met the hardship criteria. He said Hunt's juvenile convictions were "taken into consideration" in making his decision, but declined to elaborate.

"Hardship criteria" -- indeed, it must be a terrible hardship to be tried and convicted of a crime. Bullies can bear violating the rights of other people, but when teachers, coaches, or the courts try to hold them accountable for their crimes, they plead hardship. I am flat-out disgusted that the SDHSAA would have the gall to label Hunt's situation as a "hardship."

Funny thing is, as I hear it, none of the real victims in this case, the boys Hunt bullied and attempted to rape, skipped school all year. They went to class in Parker or in other schools where they open enrolled. They attended class and participated in sports and other activities, even while the trial was taking place, even when they had to go to trial and recount their horrible experiences. Some have probably graduated and gotten on with the next phase of their lives, while Hunt lingers in an extended childhood. Apparently it is much more important for Hunt to stick around and recapture the pretend glory of winning children's games instead of getting on with his adult life.

Crying that they are really the victims is one of the oldest tricks in the bully book. It is sad that West Central and the South Dakota High School Activities have fallen for it. Hunt has no claim to hardship, not compared to the kids he hurt. Hunt is no kid deserving a second chance. He is an adult -- a convicted felon -- who ought to be getting on with college and work, not playing games.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

More Reason for Caution in Integrating Laptops in the Classroom...

...or at the very least, for caution in doing business with Gateway...

Dakota State University just announced that "manufacturing delays" have prevented the timely delivery of 500 Gateway Tablet PCs to freshmen and seniors at the beginning of this school year. DSU got its order in on time, and Gateway assured the university the computers would be delivered by August 10. The expected arrival date is now September 4, the first day of classes at DSU. The university expects it will take seven days to set up and distribute all of the computers.

"Maunfacturing delays" -- right. Gateway probably shipped the computers to Connecticut first.

Readers may imagine for themselves the inconvenience Gateway's snafu will cause students and faculty in the most integrated computing environment in the state's higher education system. Would someone tell me again (1) why we get these computers on a three-year lease program, requiring students to shell out for a second computer their senior year (and thus subjecting the seniors to this foul-up), and (2) why the State of South Dakota keeps doing business with Gateway? 500 Tablet PCs -- a $650,000 order from a regular customer, and Gateway delivers four weeks late? Time to open the bidding process!

Lake Herman -- Clean for Labor Day!

Lab results on the Madville Times's August 15th water samples are in: no E. coli at either site on the west side of Lake Herman! The Madville Times construction division has taken a dip in the lake this week and emerged with no ill effects other than algae turning blue jean cut-offs green. The weather forecast looks sunny and mild for the weekend, so as you head out for big Labor Day weekend fun, be sure to include one last big summer splash in Lake Herman! And hey, readers and fellow bloggers, stop by the Madville Times World Headquarters to say hi and enjoy some lemonade on the expanded front porch!

Improvement in Computer Use on SD Farms

MDL offers a brief AP report Tuesday saying "Farm Computer Use Stagnates." The article mentions that the percentage of SD farms with Internet access has remained unchanged at 55% over the last two years.

Worried that our farmers might be getting left on the wrong side of the digital divide (and smelling more fodder for my impending doctoral thesis on information systems and rural economic development), I head to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service and find the original report on which the AP report is based (pdf and zip formats also available). I discover that "stagnates" may exaggerate the downs

South Dakota was one of only two states to show a decrease in farm computer access from 2005 to 2007, from 66% to 65%. But SD still showed an increase from 2003 to 2007 and remains above the national average of 63%. In farm Internet access, SD was one of 6 states to show zero increase over the last two years; three states showed decreases. But the slightly longer term again shows positive news: between 2003 and 2005, farm Internet access jumped 10 points from 45% to 55%, which is also the current national average. Perhaps we've just been taking a statistical breather from that rapid growth.

Our farmers are behind the nation in using the Internet to purchase agricultural inputs (SD: 7%; US: 11%) but ahead of the nation in marketing online (SD: 12%; US 10%). Our farmers use the Internet at the same rate or higher rates than the national average to state and federal government information.

South Dakota farmers are also enjoying faster migration to faster Internet access than the national average: the percentage of SD farmers using pokey dialup has dropped from 68% to 38% in just the last two years, while nationwide, farm dialup usage has dropped from 69% to 47%. DSL and wireless are taking up the slack. DSL jumped on SD farms from 15% to 35% since 2005 (US: 13% in 2005, 27% in 2007). Wireless now beams into 14% of SD farms, up from 3% in 2005 (US: 3% 2005, 7% 2007). Cable Internet access remains flat at 3% of SD farms (US: 6% in 2005, 7% in 2007).

Do farmers need computers to grow food? Not necessarily. But in a global market, where there are plenty of corporate farms engaging the services of hordes of MBAs and PhDs to maximize their profit margins in every way possible, the independent small farmer (are there any left?) needs every advantage possible, including online information and marketing opportunities. Access to the Internet is as important for farmers as access to highways and Diesel fuel, and we need to make sure everyone, from Elk Point to Bison, can get it.

One non-computer number is perhaps of more significance than any of the stats on tech access. The NASS report concludes with a count of farms. South Dakota has lost 300 farms since 2003, down to 31,300. Over the same time frame, the US has lost 37,100 farms -- 2.08 million left. I suppose the good news is that South Dakota's farm loss rate is "only" 0.24% per year, less than the nationwide farm loss rate of 0.44%. Somehow, I can't get myself to cheer too hard over losing farms more slowly than the rest of the country. Fewer people farming means fewer people owning land and making their own decisions, fewer families carrying on a grand tradition, and more corporations taking over more land. Putting more computers on the farm isn't nearly as important as keeping more people on the land (and corporations aren't people).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Saving Small Towns with Housing and Broadband

The Madville Times fought off rain-induced cabin fever yesterday with a larkish trip to Carthage, official population 187, to see the world-famous Straw Bale Museum. The museum doesn't post any operating hours; we just called and asked if the museum was open, and the woman replied, "It can be."

We enjoyed perusing the well-kept displays of small-town memorabilia as well as the museum itself, a spacious building made largely from locally available materials: straw bales from local fields and lumber recycled from local barns.

At least as enjoyable was our conversation with the museum lady about Carthage's efforts to keep itself alive. There are plenty of small towns Carthage's size, but few with the will or resources to build a museum of this scale. The community holds Straw Bale Days, which this year, in conjunction with the town's 125th anniversary, drew 3,000 visitors. Locals are now restoring the house where Charles Coughlin (former president of Briggs and Stratton and donor of the mighty Coughlin Campanile in Brookings) in order to turn it into a bed and breakfast.

But with the average of residents over 60, Carthage faces the leading edge of a demographic trend that is looming over the entire state: as the baby boomers grey and die, and as folks have fewer babies than in the old days, we need to import people to keep population up, our economy humming, and our tax base at least stable. How do we draw those new migrants: with jobs, with housing, or with both?

For Carthage, the answer appears to be housing first, business later. Carthage just doesn't offer much in the way of jobs. People who come to Carthage will come less for economic opportunities and more for lifestyle reasons: wanting to get away from the city, wanting a big lot where they can garden, wanting to retire near family. But the town also has a shortage of quality housing. The woman at the museum said that their group of community boosters would like to build a straw bale spec house and market it to retirees or semi-retired folks who would be attracted by quiet small-town life as well as an unusual but spectacularly energy-efficient building. With its limited resources, Carthage will find it easier to build and sell a new house or two and slowly increase its population than to draw an entreprenuer who wants to risk her capital on a new store or factory in a tiny town that may not be able to provide the necessary workforce.

However, the museum woman got us thinking about ways that Carthage could afford to draw business as well as residents. Carthage has just closed down its elementary school. This building, like every other school building in the state, was wired for Internet by Governor Janklow and his inmate work crews in the 1990s. Our current governor and legislature are now pushing small schools to consolidate, which means after barely a decade of use, the state is now going to leave a great deal of high-tech equipment lying idle. (Carthage wasn't forced to consolidate; they just decided they were too small to sustain the school. Nine other school districts in the state have been forced to consolidate this year.)

Perhaps there is a way to use the Internet connections in these closed schools to serve as wireless broadband hubs for their rural communities. Given top-of-the-line Internet access, farmers and small businesses around Carthage would have improved access to business information as well as opportunities to market their products to a larger audience. Using the old school as a base for community-wide wireless broadband would create opportunities for new residents to telecommute. Entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses would not have to invest in a brick-and-mortar store in Carthage; they could save capital and work from a virtual storefront. Piggybacking on the existing information technology in their school building, Carthage would have that many more opportunities to compete in the global economy and make living in Carthage a viable option for that many more potential residents.

Housing and broadband -- it's not a magic formula for every struggling town, but it may be the right starting combination for Carthage and some other small towns in our area. This combination builds on things we already have: straw bales for houses, and good technology at schools in even our smallest towns. Help new residents find affordable, comfortable (not to mention green!) places to live, help them stay connected to the world at large, and they may be able to create enough job opportunities for themselves to keep our Carthages alive and well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"We Don't Believe in Handouts"

I've heard that line or an analogous sentiment from many of my Republican/Chamber of Commerce friends. Yet these same folks like to see government give handouts to big business in the form of tax breaks (thus shifting the tax burden to workers and homeowners). Oh, but those handouts translate into more business investment, more jobs, and economic growth that trickles down to everyone, right?

Maybe not, say an increasing number of state and local governments. According to economists Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, state and local governments give up $50 billion each year in handouts to private business and receive little long-term economic benefit in return [Dennis Cauchon, "Business Incentives Lose Luster for States," USA Today, 2007.08.21]. As noted here yesterday, Gateway took advantage of a special low-interest loan provided by the State of South Dakota and then abandoned our low-tax state for high-tax California. Mayor Mark Funkhouser of Kansas City, Missouri, sees rich guys developing their own sense of entitlement:

"There's an entitlement mentality about tax breaks today," Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Mark Funkhouser says. "Every developer thinks it's his right not to pay property taxes." Funkhouser was elected mayor in May after campaigning against tax breaks to developers, including one for a luxury condo development in an affluent part of his city.

Funkhouser and many other officials are recognizing what research has been finding for years: tax incentives don't deliver bang for the buck. They pad the profits of rich businesspeople and leave regular taxpayers holding the bag:

Funkhouser says tax breaks take money from services — such as police and schools — that make a local economy successful. "Tax breaks are like taking a painkiller to mask the underlying problem, which are quality-of-life issues," he says.

I said it yesterday, and I'll repeat it today: the best investment of our money is not in tax breaks for rich businesspeople who don't need help; it's in schools and services that provide a basic quality of life for everyone and create a truly healthy environment for all citizens and businesses

Monday, August 27, 2007

West Central Puts Convicted Felon on Football Field

Leave it to West Central to put winning over the safety of students: Lou Raguse reports that convicted sexual offender Jeremy Hunt is suiting up with the West Central HS Trojans to play football. Hunt didn't go to school during his senior year, so he's a year older than all the seniors on the field. Having abused teammates at Parker, one would think he would be banned from high school sports or situations that could bring him into contact with other potential victims, but evidently that is not the case. The South Dakota High School Activities Association heard and granted a request from Hunt that he be allowed to play HS sports this year. Ugh.

West Central Superintendent Paul Gausman does point out in the KELO article that the school by law can only turn down an open-enrollee if the district or school building is full or if the student has "special needs that the district doesn't have a program or services for," and neither of those criteria is the case in Hunt's situation. And Hunt is carrying out a judge's order to finish high school. However, KELO does note that one school board member had the guts to vote no on Hunt's application. [See Lou Raguse, "Jerome Hunt's Second Chance," KELOLand.com, 2007.08.27.].

Anyone in the neighborhood will tell you how important football is to Hartford and the surrounding area. But if the game is important, shouldn't we keep felons out of it? Michael Vick is getting kicked out of the NFL, and he just abused dogs. Jerome Hunt abused boys, someone's sons.

Hunt deserves a chance to finish his education. He obviously needs to develop his mind. But a second chance to play high school sports seems only to fuel the ego and machismo, if not the brutality, of a young man who seems to need to define himself through physical exploits and dominance over others. Banning Hunt from sports would give him more time to focus on his studies and think about the harm his crime caused.

Gateway, Taxes, and Corporate Citizenship

Taiwanese Acer's $710-million acquisition of Gateway reminds me of how one of our erstwhile corporate star-citizens disproved the idea that South Dakota's "Always Low Taxes" approach to economic development doesn't guarantee long-term economic prosperity.

First, a personal note: My second laptop was a Gateway Solo 2100, purchased for a cool $2800. It replaced a laptop whose brand I can't even remember but which ran Windows 3.1 on a black-and-white screen. In my first year of using the Gateway, it suffered irrecoverable crashes and required factory replacement three times. The third time I was in Russia and spent two months communicating with Gateway via e-mail trying to arrange service. I managed to get it shipped to Gateway from Moscow. The Gateway people then tried to ship the computer back to my old address in Edmonton, Alberta. Then the computer service rep told me not to worry, they had caught the error and shipped the machine to Connecticut. Alas, the only connection I have ever had with Connecticut was a twenty-minute incursion on a bicycle from a friend's house in New York. When Gateway finally retrieved the computer and sent it to my Moscow address, they declared it to be brand new and entered the full value of a new computer on the custom's information. Russian customs thus demanded that I pay the standard 50% import tariff to get my computer, in this case, $1400. I had the computer returned to sender, told Gateway to send it to my home address, and flew home for $800 to pick up the computer myself, only to discover that all data on my hard drive had been wiped (I know, my fault for not making more back-ups).
I did get another year and a half of use out of the Solo, after which I replaced it with a smaller, faster NEC Ready 120LT, the loudest but toughest little computer I've ever owned. It cost $800. It still runs. It has never required a trip to the factory. It has never lost data. The Solo now sits under the couch, where Madville Times Jr. can pull it out and play with it. She like to stand on the keyboard.

Given a history of interaction with Gateway revolving around shoddy workmanship and service, I thus have few good things to say about Gateway. But enough about me!

Ted Waitt started Gateway in Sioux City, Iowa in 1985. Waitt hopped the border to South Dakota in 1990, promising lots of jobs. Indeed, facilities in North Sioux City and Sioux Falls employed 6000 and 1800 people, respectively. In return, the state bought all sorts of computers from Gateway, loading up state offices and schools with Holstein-decorated boxes and mousepads. DSU still locks students into leasing Gateway Tablet PCs, and the state pushes those same computers in the Classroom Connections program for high schools.

But in 1998, Waitt moved company headquarters to San Diego, taking all of the high-paying executive and engineering jobs with him. Gateway shut down its Sioux Falls facility. As of May 2006, according to KELO, "Gateway employed a total of about 1,800 people in South Dakota and at its headquarters in California, with about 850 of those positions based in North Sioux City" [AP report, "Acer Plans to Acquire Gateway for $710 Million," KELOLand.com, 2007.08.27].

So let's recap: South Dakota offers a low-tax environment (no corporate or personal income tax), buys thousands of computers, and even finances a loan to the company for 3% [Charles Platt, "Beats Skinning Hogs," Wired News, Issue 3.05, May 1995], a rate Gateway was unlikely to get at any bank. In return, Waitt takes his company and several thousand jobs to California. What gives?

The fact is that a low-tax/no-tax environment does not guarantee economic prosperity for the state, let alone loyalty from corporate citizens. Michael P. Ettlinger of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy cites Gateway's abandonment of South Dakota as an prime example of this economic truth:

An honest assessment of the data over long periods of time leads to the conclusion that personal income taxes do not adversely impact on states' economies in any significant way. This really shouldn't be surprising. After all, there are other things that are far more likely to have an impact. Compared to other costs of doing business--labor costs, proximity to markets, quality of work force and a variety of other factors--the burden of the personal income tax is quite a small factor.

The argument is sometimes made that state personal income taxes influence the locational preferences of entrepreneurs and CEOs. The suggestion is that these individuals, who have a disproportionate impact on a state's economy are far more likely to locate in a state where they will pay less tax. There are, however, a number of flaws in this argument.

First, as mentioned above, there are other factors which are far more likely to affect the success or failure of a business venture than personal income tax liability.

Second, presumably we are talking about wealthy businesspeople, since middle- and low-income businesspeople are actually better off in a state that relies more heavily on progressive income taxes than regressive taxes. One of the primary benefits of being wealthy is the opportunity to live where one wants to. A few percentage points of personal income tax is unlikely to have a major impact on the decision of where to enjoy one's prosperity. An example of this that has recently been in the press is the founder and President of Gateway computers. He recently moved himself, most of the company's executives and engineers from South Dakota, where there is no personal income tax, to California which has a one of the highest top personal income tax rates. He decided he wanted to live in Southern California, he was having trouble attracting other talented individuals to South Dakota and he was in a position to do what he wanted--so he did.

Third, the differences between states in the personal income tax liability for a wealthy person is typically quite small. This is, in part, because of the impact of the deduction on the federal tax return for state taxes. A wealthy person in a state with a tax rate of 6 percent pays that percent of his or her taxable income to the state. But if they are in the top federal tax rate bracket (approximately 40%), their federal personal income tax is reduced by an amount equal to 2.4 percent of their taxable income. Thus the net cost of the state income tax is only 3.6 percent.

[Michael P. Ettlinger, tax policy director, ITEP, testimony regarding House Bill 109, New Hampshire Legislature, 1999.01.19]

As Ettlinger shows us, South Dakota's no-income-tax stance doesn't matter to wealthy businesspeople. It penalizes lower- and middle-income workers and businesspeople with a regressive tax system. And as the Gateway experience shows, it doesn't guarantee that the corporations we might lure to the state will stay and be loyal corporate citizens. Even if a no-income-tax policy is the marginal factor that induces a handful of companies to move here, those companies demonstrate by their moving here for such meager increases in profits that they will pull up stakes and leave buildings empty and South Dakotans jobless the moment some other state (or country) offers them a tax break or other incentive package that will shave another 0.1% off their operating expenses.

In his 1999 testimony, Ettlinger, also pointed out that Minnesota, with the highest income tax rates in our region, also had the best economic performance in the region. South Dakota, said Ettlinger, lagged behind Minnesota and other income-tax states on several economic measures.

An income tax doesn't guarantee economic success, but it doesn't kill it, either. Gateway left our supposedly business-friendly environment for big-government, big-tax California, and took several thousand jobs with it. South Dakota should focus less on low taxes and incentives for itinerant corporations who may not stay long, if they come here at all. Instead, we should direct our attention to creating a less regressive (less sales tax and gambling), less arbitrary (less property tax based on guesswork assessments and speculation), more equitable tax system. We can then use those revenues to make more investment in the foundation of all economic development, education. We also need to concentrate on developing our own homegrown entrepreneurs, citizens who already have some loyalty to South Dakota and will live and work here not just for profit, but because they feel a genuine connection and obligation to our statewide community.

On City's Agenda: Pool Election Oct 16

Among the items on the Madison City Commission agenda tonight: setting October 16 as the date for a special election to approve floating bonds to build a new $3.5-million city aquatic center (that's what we call pools now).

With a 1350-acre aquatic center just across the yard, the Madville Times has never felt much urge to go swim in town. But even this happy lake resident can recognize the value of a nice outdoor swimming pool for the kids in town, not to mention the kids from Rutland, Nunda, and other outlying areas who bus in for swimming lessons here. The indoor swimming pool at the Community Center is nice for January, but in the summer, kids really ought to be outside in the sunshine.

Will this special project get more support at the polls than April's failed push for a bigger high school gym? The information the pool committee has posted says city propertyholders will face an extra $1.60 per $1,000 of valuation on their property tax. On the $100,000 home, that's $160 a year. That money does get us a fancy pool with lots of curvy walls (and the Madville Times loves curvy walls). Unlike the new gym expansion, the project doesn't just build seats for more spectators; the city wants to expand the capacity so more kids can jump in and swim. Where only the kids who make the team get to play on a fancy gym floor, a pool is open to all swimmers, from Olympic backstrokers to cannonballing dogpaddlers. Get ready for some interesting café conversation around town as we head toward October 16!

One question that may come up: as with the new gym, where are the wealthy private donors who might help reduce the public debt burden? Brookings replaced its city pool at Hillcrest Park with a fancy $4.3 million aquatic center with major donations from the Dale Larson and Don Endres families (see also p. 29 of Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman's 2007 "State of the City" presentation).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Brookings: Model Downtown Development

It's not just our big-city neighbors in Sioux Falls who know how to make Main Street all fancy. Our friends in Brookings also recognize the importance of maintaining an attractive, vibrant downtown corridor of economic and cultural activity. Chuck Cecil reports on the upcoming Downtown Improvement Project planned for Brookings starting next spring [Chuck Cecil, "Main Street's Been Same for 100 Years, But Just Wait," Brookings Register, 2007.08.24]. Brookings's Main Street is already a visual treat, with lots of trees and flowers out in front of a lively stretch of retail, restaurant, and recreation establishments. Among the improvements coming next spring are the return of a public drinking fountain at 4th and Main and a sculpture on the bumpout opposite the Ram.

These improvements may not sound like money makers, but they reflect the efforts of the very energetic Downtown Brookings organization to keep the heart of Brookings alive, beautiful, and profitable in the face of retail competition from the Super Wal-Mart and the sprawling commercial complex out by I-29. Downtown Brookings offers some more details about the planning for its streetscaping project in its August 2007 newsletter. The newsletter and Cecil both point out one element of the project that may be key to the success Downtown Brookings is having: its openness and active solicitation of ideas and participation from downtown businesspeople and the general public. Cecil notes that the Downtown Brookings Design committee is looking for ideas from the public on themes and possible funding sources for more sculpture projects. That kind of openness to community ideas gives everyone a better sense of ownership of and pride in the final project.

The good people of Madison can only hope that the city commission's rejection of the Chamber of Commerce's request for more funding won't stand in the way of our fair city putting some of Sascha Albrecht's and Prairie Roots' ideas for downtown revitalization into action.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Downtown Good for Housing, Too!

Sioux Falls gets it: the city has a goal of increasing the number of people who live downtown from 1200 now to 10,000 by 2015. South Dakota's population hotspot recognizes that downtown thrives not only with good retail but also with people who actually live there.

Madison has some excellent housing potential on its Main Street; unfortunately, many of those upstairs apartments have been allowed to deteriorate. While those apartments do provide some cheap rental opportunities for college students and lower-income folks, developers should take a look at fixing up those handsome old buildings and drawing even more renters (and money, and vitality) to Main Street.

"But who wants to live downtown?" you may ask. Folks want to move out of the big city so they can enjoy small-town living with a big yard, maybe even a nice rural acreage or a lake home. But But Dan Statema, executive director of Main Street Sioux Falls, says that there is a growing market for downtown living, especially among real big-city folks who relocate to smaller communities like Sioux Falls and Madison:

Statema said developers are interested in the area because downtown is growing so rapidly. Part of the reason behind the high demand comes from the ease of living, he said. Venues for eating, entertainment and music all are readily available downtown without driving, and for those moving in from larger communities, those are the locations they are looking for and demanding. If downtown continues growing at this pace, there will be a much stronger residential presence in the next five or 10 years, he said. [Michelle Rydell, "Projects to Increase Downtown Living," that Sioux Falls paper, 2007.08.25]

As one of my commenters notes, the City of Madison's increasing building permit fees may encourage newcomers and even current residents to move out to the country. But many people appreciate the convenience of living downtown within walking distance of work, shopping, and recreation. Some people would also rather not have to buy a tractor to plow a quarter-mile driveway in December. As Madison continues its many efforts to live up to Governor Rounds's designation of Madison as fattest pig in the poke, it should consider ways to encourage the revitalization not only of Main Street businesses but also of Main Street living spaces.

So Can Colman Arrest Itself?

The City of Colman could already be in trouble with the school districts in Moody County for not collecting and remitting full speeding ticket fines to the state for distribution to the schools. A casual reading of Colman city ordinances suggests that the city might even be in trouble with itself.

Colman City Ordinance 10.0201 (Traffic Code -- Speed Limitations) establishes the speed limits on Highway 34 through town (remember, kids: 35 mph!) and other streets, then concludes with this direction:

The City of Colman follows the South Dakota State fine and bond schedule for speeding violations. Unless otherwise stated, violations of traffic and parking ordinances within the City of Colman shall be considered petty offenses punishable by a $25.00 fine.

Hmm... Chief Schlueter's predecessor, Chief Kimball, was charging speeders $35, so he evidently wasn't treating speed violations on Highway 34 as one of these petty offenses. The city also wasn't collecting or remitting to the state the funds laid out in SDCL 23-3-52 -- that's part of the "State fine and bond schedule," isn't it?

So on top of shortchanging school districts and law enforcement training, might Colman's city officials have been breaking their very own ordinance? Of course, fire the police, and there's no one left to arrest you....

Friday, August 24, 2007

More Tasty Arguments Against No Child Left Behind

When Congress returns from its August recess, one of the major items it must take up is the No Child Left Behind Act, which is set to expire at the end of September. All the Madville Times wants for Christmas (or preferably the autumnal equinox) is gridlock that will let No Child Left Behind die.

In case these pages haven't persuaded you, see NoChildLeft.com for some excellent discussion of the fatal flaws of this legislation. The authors of that website ceased publication in May, declaring victory in their war against NCLB a bit prematurely. Don't rest easy until you've contacted Herseth-Sandlin, Thune, and Johnson (and any other Congresspeople you like to chat with) and told them to kill No Child Left Behind. Not amend it, not increase its funding, not tweak the standards -- just kill it.

Colman City Council Minutes -- For What They're Worth

I was hoping I might get a little insight on the Colman City Council's actions in May and June regarding their newly hired and quickly fired police chief Matt Schlueter. Alas, the Colman City Council is a little slow on the Internet uptake. Their official city website offers a link to Council minutes, but as of this morning, the only minutes provided are from the Council's April 9, 2007, meeting.

As a public service (and in the spirit of open government that is sweeping the state), I am thus happy to post copies of the Colman City Council minutes from May through July. For those of you who prefer not to download a 7.3 MB pdf file, here are some highlights:

May 14: Council hires Schlueter for $29,000. (Wow! That's less than some teachers make!) Not exactly the sort of grand sum that could convince a decent man to continue illegal practices for the benefit of the city.

June 11: While folks appear to come and go during meetings, Police Chief Schlueter comes and stays for the whole meeting, through all the zoning, payroll, and other non-law-enforcement issues, waiting for the discussion of police department issues, which the Council appears to like leaving for the end of the meeting.

Schlueter suggests getting a video camera for the patrol vehicle. The council tells him to look into getting a camera and a bulletproof vest. They also approve purchasing ammunition for Schlueter's firearms certification. The council at this point apparently still feels Schlueter is doing a good enough job to keep him safe and trust him with bullets.

The only mention in the minutes of the speeding-tickets issue is this one sentence: "City fines on SD Hwy 34 through Colman was [sic] discussed." Schlueter himself in private communication indicates that at that June 11 meeting, the City Council decided to handle all tickets through
the Moody County Clerk of Courts, but only with dissent from 3 of 7 council members. Not exactly eager consensus among council members on following the advice of the attorney general or even its own city attorney on how to process speeding tickets legally.

June 21: The Colman City Council holds a special session following a public hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission. They approve a rezoning amendment from Planning and Zoning, then duck into executive session with City Finance Officer Van Duyn and City Attorney Ellingson to discuss "employee issues" for an hour and forty minutes. Ellingson leaves right after the executive session. They approve a payment and three building permits, then adjourn.

Sheer curiosity: I'd love to see the agenda posted prior to this meeting, just to make sure the executive session was listed. Alas, the Colman City Council agenda webpage doesn't have anything but April 9, either.

June 25: Another special session -- the taxpayers are getting their money's worth out of their councillors this week! The stated purpose of the meeting: "to have the Police Chief employee review." Chief Schlueter is there for the review, but, according to the minutes, "Mayor Nelson indicated other business on the agenda will be taken care of prior to the employee review." Perhaps they were worried that amidst the fuss and fire, they might forget what they originally convened to do. The council spends 20 minutes changing an order, discussing "electrical issues," and tabling a purchase agreement before diving into the black waters of executive session for 52 minutes. Upon re-opening the doors to the public, the Council declares Chief Schlueter "not a good 'fit' for the Chief of Police position in Colman and terminates him immediately with two weeks severance pay.

The minutes do not indicate that City Attorney Ellingson was present for the discussion and approval of Schlueter's firing. Maybe he should have been. If the city really could terminate its police chief without stating any cause, then why did it bother to preface the firing by stating that Schlueter didn't "fit" the position? (And what do those quote marks mean?) The statement may not weigh in any appeal of the firing (lawyers are paid to figure that sort of thing out), but the council only seems to open itself to more questions by making even a vague reference to reasons for firing when it supposedly doesn't need to give any. Attorney Ellingson might well have advised the council to make no statement, but simply to fire the Chief, per its rights, and let the matter go.

July 30: A special session to hear Schlueter's grievance. Schlueter and his attorney Todd Epp appear, but get no satisfaction. The commissioners vote to uphold the termination (unanimously, as is exceptionally noted in the minutes).

The minutes don't offer much insight into the events or rationale behind Schlueter's firing. Again, that darned executive session gets in the way of understanding what's really happening in government. Looks like if we want to know, the matter will have to go to court.

By the way, while I'm thinking about it, I notice that SDCL 1-25-2, which authorizes closed sessions for public bodies, says "Executive or closed meetings may be held," not "must be held." I've wondered: does that mean that the Colman City Council could have held its discussions of Schlueter's "fitness" for the position in open session, for the record, if it wanted to? Does that mean that when boards at various levels say they have to conduct these personnel matters in secret, they are actually stretching the truth? Legal opinion, anyone?

Ethanol: Green Fuel, Greener Lakes?

Wednesday's print MDL offers an AP report on potential negative environmental impacts of ethanol production on Chesapeake Bay [no author cited, "More Corn Acres for Ethanol Bad Deal for Chesapeake Bay?" Madison Daily Leader, 2007.08.22, p. 6]. A July 17 Washington Post article provides an account of the same study AP discusses [David A. Fahrenthold, "'Green' Fuel May Damage the Bay," Washington Post, 2007.07.17, p. B01].

The gist: Increased ethanol production means increased corn production. Corn requires more fertilizer than other crops. Runoff from cornfields thus contains more nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients from fertilizer. Increased nutrient levels in runoff means increased algae blooms in the lakes and bays that receive that runoff. Algae blooms stink, but more importantly they "consume the oxygen that fish, crabs and other creatures need to breathe, creating the Chesapeake's infamous dead zones" [Fahrenthold].

These concerns arise in a region where corn production is increasing more slowly than the national average: Fahrenthold cites figures from the study predicting farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will plant an additional 500,000 acres of corn over the next five years. South Dakota Corn Growers cite USDA figures predicting 400,000 more acres planted to corn in South Dakota just this year.

Does the increased risk of algae blooms and lake eutrophication mean we should give up on ethanol? No. That's not the conclusion the study reaches. We don't have to shut down corn production to protect our lakes. We do, however, need to take measures to reduce the amount of nutrient runoff from fields to lakes. That means keeping more CRP acres and grassy buffer zones around waterways to absorb the nutrients before they can contaminate other bodies of water.

Ethanol offers many benefits, but when it comes to fueling our passion for automobiles, we must remember that every energy solution will bring various costs. Ethanol is helping farmers cash in, but it is also driving up food prices and now may also make our lakes a little less healthy. South Dakota can cash in on ethanol and good corn prices, but we need to balance our desire for profit from the land with protection of the water.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Madison Building Permits Expensive and Regressive

Madison City Ordinance 1433 takes effect September 6. It updates the city building code to conform to the 2006 International Residential Code (probably one of those preliminary steps the New World Order folks have to foist on everyone to make it easier for the black helicopters to find dissidents, right?). It also changes the fees for building permits in our fair city.

The short take: if you plan to build anything in the next year, go get your permit now!

The gory details: See this copy of the fee schedule from page 7 of the ordinance as posted by the city commission. This eight-bracket scheme replaces the simple previous schedule (Madison City Code Article I, Section 6-16.1e, available at the city site as of this publishing) which imposed a fee of $20 for the first $2000 of project value, plus $1 per additional $1000 of project value. If you are building a $100,000 house, you can purchase a building permit this week from the city for $118. Two weeks from today, that same permit will cost you $628.50.

Building bigger? Start a $500,000 dream house in Madison today, and you can get a permit for $518. Wait a couple weeks to file your application, and you'll pay $2,028.50. Uff da!

This lake resident hopes that the Lake County Commission won't feel the need to follow the example of their city counterparts. First off, Lake County maintains a simpler fee schedule. The base fee is $50 for the first $2000 of building value, plus $1 per additional $1000 of project value. Some quick calculations show that for projects under $4000 (like the deck and carport the Madville Times will continue working on as soon as the mud dries), building permits cost less in Madison than in the rest of the county. However, should we make any big additions to the Madville Times World Headquarters, we will save hundreds of dollars over comparable building in the city.

For those of you looking to move to Lake County, compare the permit costs for the above homes. A Lake County permit for a $100,000 cabin will cost you $148, less than a quarter of the impending fees for building in town. Build that swanky $500,000 house outside the city limits, and your building permit will cost $548, saving you $1,481 over permit costs in town. ($1,481 will buy you some nice silver cabinet fixtures for that new house.)

These numbers give the impression that Madison's new building permit fee structure might be a bit overpriced. But maybe it's unfair to compare city permit costs to rural permit costs. Let's compare Madison's building permit fees to those in a real metropolitan madhouse: Sioux Falls. Surely the money-hungry Sioux Falls City Council is cashing in on its residents' building desires more than Madison's City Council... right?

Wrong. As the fee comparison chart shows, under Sioux Falls's six-bracket permit fee schedule, the only thing you can build more cheaply in Madison than in Sioux Falls is a $500 doghouse (Madison building permit: $10; Sioux Falls building permit: $20). A permit to build a modest $100,000 house in Sioux Falls costs $433, awfully steep compared to Lake County, but still $195.50 cheaper than the same project in Madison come September 6. And that $500,000 house? The City of Sioux Falls will charge you $1,433 for the privilege of building it, a savings of almost $600 over the fee for a comparable building in Madison.

Looking past the blatantly exorbitant increases in fees, we find another distressing aspect of the new building permit fee schedule. If we assume that project value correlates with the income of the builder/owner, Madison's fees are basically regressive. Actually, when building permit cost is expressed as a percentage of building value, building permit fees in all three jurisdictions discussed here are regressive, charging a higher percentage of total value for cheaper projects.

But the multi-bracket scheme exacerbates the regressivity of the fees. The highest rates -- $9, $6.50, and $4.50 per thousand -- apply to the lowest building value amounts ($1-$25K, $25-50K, and $50-100K, respectively). The folks with more money to spend pay ever less per thousand that they decide to sink into their ever-bigger houses.

As reported here and in MDL [Chuck Clement, "City Transfers Land to Lake Area Improvement Corporation," MDL, 2007.08.07, p.1], the Lake Area Improvement Corporation is studying Madison's housing situation and intends to spend $100,000 to "develop local housing resources" [Clement]. If the LAIC and the city are serious about addressing the shortage of quality affordable housing in Madison, maybe it should make part of its strategy a restructuring of its building fee permit schedule.

Consider the benefits for lower- and middle-income folks if the city were to keep building permit fees for projects of $100,000 or less at the current levels (and scale the new schedule accordingly to avoid an abrupt jump in fees when building value hits $100,001). A family building a nice new starter home in town could save up to $480. That's big money for working-class budgets. Keeping building fees low, at least for modest projects, would mean one less barrier to creating more affordable housing in Madison.

Prairie Roots Re-Routed: A Real South Dakota Blog

Mrs. Madville Times has relocated Prairie Roots, her erudite yet earthy blog, from Blogger to Wordpress. She is taking advantage of Wordpress's page features to create some new resources. (We are wrestling, amusedly, with the metaphorical consequences of moving a blog about roots.)

If you want something different in the South Dakota blogosphere, read Prairie Roots. Much of what appears on the virtual pages of South Dakota's blogs consists of one-liners, ephemeral political scuttlebutt, muckraking, regurgitation of conservative radio talking points, and the search for Shawn Cable. Prairie Roots does none of that. Prairie Roots puts her theology and philosophy together to focus on issues of lasting significance: promoting sustainable small-town economic development; saving small and genuine family farms; and creating a rich, vibrant, and thriving South Dakota culture. There's no single-issue voting or personal grudge matches from Prairie Roots; she takes a comprehensive look, bigger than my meager summary can justly describe, at all the factors involved in making our unique state even greater.

Achieving such a comprehensive view requires a very thoughtful approach to blogging. Prairie Roots does not generate as many posts as other bloggers, but she's aiming for quality, not quantity. She spends much more time than the typical blogger composing her posts and pages, because she wants all of her posts to fit into an overall worldview. Prairie Roots is very local, but her thinking is very global. Prairie Roots is about posting lasting information and ideas. Long after most posts on South Dakota's prominent blogs (and even my own!) have become dated and irrelevant, much of what Prairie Roots writes will still pertain to the issues facing every South Dakota community.

Prairie Roots is also developing a really cool library of resources at her relocated and updated blog, including the following:

  1. "South Dakota Green Directory" -- a compendium of information on farming, building, and living sustainably in South Dakota.
  2. "Main Street" -- a discussion of and information on promote the revitalization of downtown business and activity in South Dakota.
  3. "Norwegian Boulevard" -- think of it as "Beyond Main Street," with information on preserving and promoting farms and the countryside right alongside boosting the Main Streets where country folks come to shop. (Prairie Roots can explain the name... which I helped come up with! :-) )
I promote Prairie Roots not only because she bakes me brownies (yum!), but because she loves South Dakota as much as I do and has some great ideas for making this state better. Citizens who want to create positive change for South Dakota's future should put Prairie Roots at the top of their reading list. Enjoy!

"Overlay Protection District" -- Eminent Domain for a Maybe

Doug and Ruth Peters of Wentworth are having a little dust-up with the Lake County Commission. (The latest details come from MDL and KJAM.) The Peterses live on the north side of Highway 34, the object of great hopes among Madison's movers and shakers, who feel there's so much moving and shaking between Madison and Colman that Highway 34 needs two more lanes to contain it all.

Evidently there's some moving and shaking in the Peterses' household as well*: they say they have a growing family and need more house. They'd like to add on to the north side of their house, away from the highway. While they're at it, they'd like to expand a shed eastward. (One can always use more shed space -- it's a sign of good capitalists, buying more stuff and keeping the economy moving.)

Normally, there'd be no problem here. The Peterses are not building any closer to the existing right-of-way, and they're not asking to put up a hundred-foot tower or a nudie bar. Usually the Peterses could just walk in to the zoning office, pay my friend Deb Reinecke the necessary fee, chat a bit, and get a building permit in the mail in a day or two.

In this case, though, the Peterses face a roadblock: an "overlay protection district." Lake County, in conjunction with the City of Madison and Moody County, has created this no-build zone along Highway 34 to prevent any construction that might get in the way of the possible four-lane-ification of the highway.

As things stand, if the state does grace us with two more lanes, the Peters homestead and a handful of other houses and farm buildings along the highway are probably toast. The overlay protection district simply caps the amount of bulldozing (and the concomitant owners' tears) that will take place.

Expanding the highway may be a good idea (and according to KJAM, the state DoT will weigh in today on whether it's a good enough idea to make the State Transportation Improvement Program for 2008-2012), but right now, it's still just an idea. When the state decides to build a road, it has the power of eminent domain to take private property, after fairly compensating the owners, to execute that decision. However, when the state hasn't made any decision, and when a project is just a twinkle in the eye of some local boosters, should local governments have the authority to impose "overlay protection districts," effectively restricting property owners' use of their land without any compensation? It would seem that if the state is the only agency that can build the road, only the state should have the power to take away the property rights along the proposed route, and then only when the road-building project goes from proposal to approved project.

Now the Peterses aren't totally forbidden from building: they are seeking a variance from the overlay protection district restrictions. Barring major opposition from neighbors, the commission can grant variances to any zoning regulation. However, Todd Kays of the First District Association of Local Governments said at the Tuesday commission meeting that the commission could propose a deal under which it would grant the variance only if the Peterses agree not to seek compensation for any additions if the state's bulldozers come a-knocking.

That suggestion (not yet acted upon by the commission) demonstrates how the overlay protection district is an effort by the county to take private property for potential public use without just compensation, which one of our favorite documents says is a no-no. If the state casts its decision and puts down the money to expand Highway 34, then let 'er rip. Pay the Peterses fair market value for their land and start laying concrete. But until the actual road-making-and-paying agency makes its decision, the Peterses should be able to invest in their land as they see fit. If they add $50,000 worth of space to their house and shed, and we have to compensate them that much more when we come through with the bulldozers, well, that's the price of building a highway, as well as the price of waiting around to make a decision and building the highway later rather than sooner.

The overlay protection district unfairly limits the Peterses' liberty to act to meet their current needs in favor of the county's hope that the state might do something with the highway sometime in the future. Unless and until the state makes a firm commitment to expanding Highway 34, the county should let the Peters family and other property holders in the overlay protection district build within normal zoning regulations as they see fit.
*I'm going to regret that line.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Senator Johnson Speaks August 28 -- Perfect Time to Discuss Health Care

Senator Tim Johnson will appear at a public "thank you" event at the Sioux Falls Convention Center next Tuesday, August 28. The press release specifically invites "all South Dakotans," making clear the Senator isn't handpicking a small, manageable, partisan audience for his first public appearance since his stroke last December.

While most pundits will be ready to parse however much Senator Johnson may say or however much his hand may tremble while he says it for its significance to the 2008 Senate horse race, perhaps the good Senator will surprise us and, amid his thanks to his patient constituents, offer a few remarks on some policy directions we should pursue during the remainder of the 110th Congress. Perhaps the most important and fitting area Senator Johnson could address: health care. After receiving eight months of world-class medical care, the payment for which has been administered efficiently (we hope!) by his employer, the federal government, Senator Johnson is in an excellent position to stand before the voters and say he is ready to support extending that coverage to every American, not just the eight-million-plus federal employees.

The good Senator has wiser politicos than this author helping craft the right message, not to mention a doctor or two advising him just how much he should take on. It'll likely do the Senator as much good just to see his friends and neighbors as it will them to see him in public. There's no need to turn this event into a big policy discussion. Still, as Senator Johnson recovers from his illness, enjoying top-notch care and not having to worry about expenses, what better time to acknowledge how few Americans enjoy such security and how a single-payer system would improve our nation's health and financial security?

Help the Chamber: Eat, Drink, and Sleep with Someone in Madison!

As noted last night, Madison's hurting for tax dollars (3% decline in bed-board-booze tax revenue over the firsty half of this year). But there's hope on the horizon: the 45th Annual Prairie Village Steam Threshing Jamboree is this weekend, August 24-26. Three jam-packed days of steam power, parades of antique tractors and cars, train rides, Old-Time Fiddlers, plowing contests, flea market, and more full-tilt family fun. (Hey, but be careful with those golf carts -- pedestrians always have the right of way!) Come for $6 (kids get in for $2) for a day, or get a 3-day Jamboree pass for just $10 (it may take you that long to see everything). Plus, you might even fall in love, like Mrs. Madville Times and yours truly did. (No kidding -- we had our first unsupervised date at the 2001 Jamboree! See MDL's Prairie Village Times, available in Tuesday's paper, for the full details.)

Of course, Prairie Village is its own municipality, so to really help out cash-strapped Madison and the Chamber, be sure to spread some green love in our fair city as well. While you're at the Jamboree, chow down at the Prairie Village Cook Shack. But stop in town as well, hit the rummage sales, enjoy cold beverages and hot gizzards, and spend the night with a friend in any of our fine lodging establishments so you can be rested and ready to make the front of the line at the Village Auxiliary breakfast.

Hang in there, Sascha! We'll get you that 30% funding increase yet!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bright Banners, Slick City Slogan... Where's the Money?

Last December I suggested that the Chamber of Commerce and Lake Area Improvement Corporation might spend the ensuing months studying the impact of their new slogan and marketing campaign for Madison. Given the expenditure of public dollars on these efforts, surely some solid data collection and analysis would be in order.

While no official impact studies have made the press, Tuesday's MDL offers some data we may interpret as the first indication of the short-term impact of the new Madison marketing campaign. Tucked away in a report on the Monday City Commission meeting lies Commissioner Jerry Johnson's revelation that revenue from the city's 1% bed-board-and-booze tax is down 3% for the first half of 2007 [Chuck Clement, "City Keeps Chamber Funding at Current Level," Madison Daily Leader, 2007.08.21]. Hmm... didn't expect that.*

Now hold your horses. The marketing campaign has only been going for a year. It is easy to imagine other factors that might have mitigated any immediate tourism gains from the marketing campaign, like slower personal income growth and higher gas prices (although various boosters around the country insist that gas prices shouldn't decrease Americans' travel plans).

But this decline in tax revenues is the only hard data we've seen, and on face, it doesn't look good. While the commissioners aver that their decision to deny the Chamber's request for a 30% increase in tax support from the city is no "reflection on the Chamber's work in the community," it remains logical to wonder if the commissioners might have been hoping for better results. Their denial of the funding does make sense: the city's contribution to the Chamber comes from the 3B tax, so if that revenue goes down, so should the Chamber's cut.**

Given this immediate downturn, the Chamber and LAIC will surely be crunching numbers looking for the sunny side of the slogan and banners. The Madville Times looks forward to the long-term studies that will demonstrate the effectiveness of our city marketing.

*I also didn't expect the City Commission to discuss its funding of the Chamber at its August 20 meeting. The agenda for Monday's meeting certainly doesn't mention the Chamber. The only item close is "Personnel."

**On a side note, it occurs to me to ask when the Chamber of Commerce decided to ask for tax money. As a business organization and free-market booster, the casual observer might think Chambers of Commerce would make it a point of pride to operate solely by member contributions, without any handouts from government (for example, see the Chambers in Las Cruces, NM, and Baytown, TX). And if the Chamber does receive tax dollars, does it then became at least partially a public entity, obligated to serve all businesses in the community, not just its dues-paying members?

Colman Speeding Tickets Not Kosher

More evidence that Colman's ex-police chief Matt Schlueter was right to refuse to continue previous ticketing practices on Highway 34: The City of Colman had created its own ticket form that deviated significantly from that prescribed by South Dakota Codified Law.

First, let's look at the power of attorney "authorization card" Colman was issuing when it hired Matt Schlueter in May:

Note that the form explicitly directs those pleading guilty to return the card and listed fine to the City of Colman, at Colman City Hall. The Moody County Clerk of Courts was only to be contacted by those pleading not guilty.

Now, let's take a look at the portion of the official state ticket that serves as a power of attorney form, as specified by SDCL 23-1A-2 and SD Administrative Rule 2:03:01:03:

This form directs the defendants and their money to the County Clerk of Courts, regardless of the intended plea. The state form makes no provision for directing the money to any other agency.

Now SDAR 02:01:03:03 says "The following form, or any other form that substantially complies with it, shall be used for offenses included on the schedule of offenses adopted pursuant to SDCL 16-2-21 and where a power of attorney option is provided." One may argue over the exact meaning of "substantially complies," but this writer bets that substantial compliance probably includes instructions on where defendants should send their money. City Assistant Attorney Jim Billion's reversal of opinion on the issue in June seems to support that bet.

Remember, the issue here isn't whether Colman runs a speed trap. Colman's city police have the right -- wait, their duty is to catch every lawbreaker in town. If they could catch every no-good leadfoot (you all know who you are) zooming through that peaceful burg, then more power to them. The important issues here are the following:

  1. Was Colman violating state law by pocketing speeding fines and thus denying county schools and law enforcement training the funding they were due? The above documents strengthen the case that the city did.
  2. Did Colman fire Officer Schlueter just because he wanted to follow the law?

If either or both of these questions is answered affirmatively, then how and when will the City of Colman be held accountable? School superintendents, police officers, and Highway 34 commuters eagerly await the answer.

Native Health Care Needs Boost -- Help Coming from Zaniya, Sanford?

A perusal of the Zaniya Project website (which needs some serious updating -- no minutes yet from the July or August meetings) turns up a presentation on Indian Health Services in South Dakota [Jerry Hofer, Secretary, SD Department of Human Services, "Zaniya IHS Workgroup: Zaniya Task Force Update," 2007.07.12]. Page 7 of the presentation compares per capita health care expenditures using 2004 data. Readers of this blog already know that the US spends more per capita on health care than any other country, double or even triple the amount other nations spend. This Zaniya Project presentation points out that the US spent $5700 per capita (that's 15% of GDP) on health care in 2004, Indian Health Services spent just $1714 per capita among its constituents.

As Megan Myers reminds us in today's Sioux Falls paper, "As part of treaties signed by the Sioux Nation in the late 1800s, the federal government agreed to provide medical care on Indian reservations - care that generally matched the nation's accepted standards" [Megan Myers, "Sanford Vows Help for Reservations," that smutty Sioux Falls newspaper that will have to use proceeds from selling smut to settle Dan Scott's libel suit, 2007.08.21]. "Generally matched" is somewhat vague, but this writer suspects it means something more than a meager one third of the per capita revenue poured into health care nationwide. Money doesn't solve everything -- these pages have noted that other countries spend less per capita than the US on health care but achieve better health outcomes -- but if decent health care under the status quo in America costs over $6000 a head (see the updated OECD 2006-2007 figures), then IHS needs to spend more than $1700 per person to meet our treaty obligations, not to mention our moral obligations to our fellow citizens (and fellow human beings).

It should not be the State of South Dakota's obligation to pick up two-thirds of the tab for the federal government's fulfillment of its treaty obligations. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see that the Zaniya Porject folks are at least considering the health care problems faced by the people from whom the task force borrows its fancy name. It is also encouraging to see in the Myers article that Sanford Health is looking at expanding its children's health care programs to the reservations as well. If Sanford is all about helping kids, then it is only logical for them to reach out to the reservations, where, according to Myers, "Children ages 4 to 16 make up 26 percent of South Dakota's Native American population, compared with 14 percent statewide."

But stay tuned: this is all just talk for now, both from Sanford and the Zaniya Project. Sanford will dole out its dollars as its profit margins and preferences see fit; the Zaniya Project will issue its report at the end of September, and then it will be up to our legislators (i.e., the men and women who represent and had better listen to us!) to decide whether to enact any of the task force's proposals.

Contact your local Zaniya Project Task Force members -- or all of them -- here; track down your legislators here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Technoentrepreneurism: Madison Creates Words and Jobs

...and you thought the Madville Times was the only outfit in town making up big words...

MDL tonight publishes the largest word ever to hit its pages (at since some Welsh Antidisestablishmentarians crashed a Lutheran wedding in 1921): technoentrepreneurism, as in the new Center of Technoentrepreneurism being created by Dakota State University and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation [Elisa Sand, "DSU, LAIC Develop Center for Entreprenuers," Madison Daily Leader, 2007.08.20].

The new center, being developed by DSU assistant professor Josh Pauli and LAIC director Dwaine Chapel, hasn't taken solid form yet, but from Sand's description in tonight's paper, it appears the intention is to help local entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality. The center will focus on tech-related business plans, but Sand reports that Chapel says the center will consider evaluting any sort of business plan.

First off, kudos to Chapel and Pauli for braving a new and massive word. Heck, that's as long a noun as Cory Allen Heidelberger! But don't order that big sign yet! If we actually have the budget for a sign with that many letters, we ought to go one more. Given that entrepreneurship is the recognized hypernominalization of entrepreneur, let's go for 22 letters: technoentrepreneurship!!! (That's the term used on the International Journal of Technoentrepreneurship; maybe the center can get a free subscription.)

Secondly and more significantly, DSU and LAIC deserve some credit for following up so quickly on the forum on universities and economic development held at DSU last month. This new center appears directed at the need for universities to offer entrepreneurs among their students, faculties, and local communities more assistance in turning ideas into bankable goods and services.

Sand tells us the Center of Technoentrepreneurism will include a board of eight DSU and LAIC personnel to review business plans. The center also has $50,000 in funding from LAIC and DSU (our tuition and tax dollars at work). They'll start working with student entrepreneurs this fall.

Hmm... maybe the Madville Times should submit a business plan. If the new center can help this blog make money, it can do anything!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

DNA Theft -- Madville Times Demands Return of Genes

In his/her/its first weekend of operation, the recombinant replicant South Dakota Blog Watch (Wo?)Man 2.0 has offered a positive assessment of the Madville Times, for which this writer is sincerely grateful.

However, the mysterious sdbwm2 has unfortunately tipped its/her/his mutant hand as to its closely guarded identity (surely the next biggest secret in the SD blogosphere... maybe bigger than the whereabouts/workabouts of Shawn Cable!). Obviously, such praise could only come from the Madville Times's own self-promoting DNA, which has evidently been lifted without its owner's knowledge. The Madville Times protests this heinous violation of personal integrity in the strongest terms and demands the return of this precious DNA... or at least royalties for the use of the literary brilliance contained therein!

More Books Require More Government?

KELO runs an AP report on Pennington County commissioners' support for the creation of library districts to finance and govern South Dakota public libraries [AP, "Pennington County Seeks Support for Library Districts," 2007.08.18]. A library district would be just like a school district:
  1. Voters would establish its boundaries based on the area served. A library district might be a portion of one county, or it might include territory across county borders.
  2. A library district would have its own governing board, elected from residents within the established boundaries.
  3. A library district would have the power to levy taxes, which would appear as a separate assessment on residents' property tax bills (just as now my property tax bill shows assessments from Lake County, Madison Central School District, and Lake Herman Sanitary District).
  4. The library district board would use the tax dollars raised to carry out its statutorily defined powers -- in this case, limited most likely to purchases of books and other materials, operations and maintenance, and salaries for library staff, as well as costs for meetings of the library board.
Currently, public libraries derive funding from city and county governments. The Pennington County Commission proposes to give its county library $400,000 in FY 2008. As noted here earlier, our less culturally inclined Lake County Commission grudgingly gives the Madison Public Library $800.

Pennington County Commissioner Ethan Schmidt thinks library districts would be a "more equitable" way of funding libraries. According to the AP report, "[Schmidt] says people in New Underwood and Wall, for example, may never get to Rapid City to use the library, but they are paying for it."

The Madville Times is all about equitable taxation. It doesn't seem right to tax citizens for services they never use. But in this case, setting up a separate layer of government and taxation doesn't feel like a step in the right direction.

First, just who uses the library, and who doesn't? The proportion of New Underwood and Wall residents using the Rapid City library is likely lower than the proportion of Rapid City residents, but there are probably folks who make the trip to the big city to use the library, and likely even more who obtain resources from the Rapid City library through interlibrary loan (an outstanding program, by the way!). Everyone in the county can make use of the public library, even if not everyone does.

Conversely, not everyone in a library district would use the public library, even though everyone in the library district would be paying for it. There may be property owners within a couple blocks of the public library who never set foot inside yet would find a new "Library District" assessment on their property tax bill.

Whether we fund libraries through existing governments or through new library districts, there will still be plenty of library users -- renters, college students, kids, out-of-town visitors -- who will not pay a penny to support the library. If equitable taxes are the goal, our Black Hills Libertarian friends might suggest that libraries ought to be funded entirely by user fees: a dollar admission fee, a dime a minute to use the library computers, a quarter per book checked out or $50 annual fee for a library card. But libraries serve the public good. Even if I don't go to the library, I benefit when my neighbor reads a book and gets smarter. Society as a whole benefits from every increase in knowledge. Folks in Wall -- heck, even us folks in Madison! -- benefit when folks in Rapid City read books (every bit of education is a step closer to replacing Bill Napoli with a rational legislator). User fees ignore that social benefit while limiting access to folks on tight budgets. Libraries are essential to democracy: like public schools, they guarantee equal access to information for every citizen, rich or poor. Democratic governments thus have an obligation to support libraries.

A library district might be able to concentrate the tax burden more perfectly on the population with the highest proportion of direct users. There may also be some benefit to creating a new governmental entity that focuses solely on supporting the local library. A library district would offer more citizens a chance to participate in public affairs, especially those who may be keenly interested in the library but not in wrestling with all the other issues before a county or city commission.

But library districts seem to be a movement away from recognizing the broad social benefit of free access to information. They would excuse existing governments from setting priorities within their budgets. This writer's own experience on the Lake Herman Sanitary District and view of uncontested seats for local school board elections suggest that citizens are already stretched thin on public service time. We may not be able to find civic-minded folks with enough volunteer time left to serve on such boards. Some might argue a lack of eager board members would indicate a lack of enthusiasm and thus lack of need for the service; we would suggest rather that there is a limit to how many government boards we can practically create and staff. It may not make sense to have one board govern every township, school district, and other service provider in the county, but neither does it make sense to have a separately elected board controlling the police, the fire department, the municipal sewer, the zoning office, the welfare office, every school building, the library, and every other public service agency in the county.

Creating yet another special governing district may pose some taxation problems. Even if city and county commissions could transfer their library funding functions completely to new library districts and if the net tax burden did not increase at all, citizens would find it harder to challenge taxation decisions. A library district is just one more set of hands reaching for your pocketbook. While paying taxes is patriotic, so is making sure your elected officials are using your taxes efficiently. The more government boards we create, the harder it is for us to get around to all of their meetings and keep an eye on their fiscal decisions.

We already have plenty of layers of government. Here in Lake County, we may have more coming, as the Interlakes Water Quality Committee looks into creating a Water Project District. One layer of government can't do everything, but everything can't have a separate layer of government. There's a proper balance somewhere in the middle. Separate library districts seem to lie somewhere south of that proper balance; however, the Madville Times welcomes insight from county commissioners, library patrons, and taxpayers that might suggest otherwise.

One last note: if for some reason libraries don't well fit the purview of sity and county governments, might we fold libraries naturally into some other existing governing entity, like public school districts? Each school board already maintains a library of some sort within its school district, and in small towns, the school library often serves as a public library as well. Perhaps combining school and public library funding and oversight would create efficiencies that would benefit both entities and the public.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Moody County -- Land of Fearless Living

In the midst of the ruckus in Moody County about the proposed $100,000 reduction of the Sheriff's Department budget, I find one small glimmer of hope for the culture. KELO's Summer Evans interviews local residents about Sheriff Wellman's very public complains about the proposed cuts. Holly Jensen of Trent expresses respect for the sheriff's willingness to speak out (as does the Madville Times). But then Evans writes this:

While she's sympathetic, Jensen isn't sure the loss of staff would not effect her personally. "I don't know if it would really bother me too much. I feel safe no matter what." [Summer Evans, "County Residents React to Sheriff's Letter," KELOLand.com, 2007.08.17]

I feel safe no matter what. This isn't the moronic macho grunting of the kids who mindlessly slap "No Fear" stickers on their pickup trucks. This is the simple commentary of a common woman who recognizes that, tornados and crazy teenage drivers notwithstanding, we live in a pretty safe part of the world.

In the midst of news outlets and ads hyping dangers to sell their products, and in the midst of Steve Sibson's constant (to the point of hilarity) warnings of the complete collapse of the underpinnings of Christian civilization, it's nice to know some folks haven't bought into the culture of fear. Thanks, Holly!

Big Schools Can't Compete with Small Schools... in Computer Technology?

The big schools are supposed to be better than the small schools, right? Better academic results, more course options, better pay for staff, more efficient use of resources -- all that economy-of-scale stuff, or so the big-town advocates of school consolidation would tell us.

Yet Luke Evans at KELO-TV offers a report that turns the economy-of-scale argument on its head [Luke Evans, "Education Expense," KELOLand.com, 2007.08.17]. While high schools from mid-sized Madison down to tiny Oldham-Ramona are working toward the goal of laptops for every student (Madison is there, Oldham-Ramona is in the process), Ann Smith, Sioux Falls School District Library Coordinator, says a one-to-one laptop program wouldn't work in Sioux Falls. Smith cites the technical difficulties of two thousand students all hitting the Internet at the same time and swamping the school computer network. Smith says (in Evans's paraphrase) "the Sioux Falls Schools are too big to make the cost of the laptops effective for their budget." She feels the Sioux Falls schools get more bang for their buck out of portable computer labs and another, better-tested technology: paper and pencil.

Smith's statements fly in the face of conventional wisdom in economics and education policy. "It's like running water anymore, you just have to have a computer in this day and age and most colleges require a laptop or some sort of computer," says Oldham-Ramona Superintendent John Bjorkland. But could this acceptance of technology as an absolute necessity in the classroom be driving the budget crunch in South Dakota schools? As these pages have discussed elsewhere, all this computer technology creates educational opportunities, but it also creates permanent increased operating expenses for schools -- computer maintenance, all-too-frequent software and hardware upgrades, and high salaries for computer support personnel who may not even teach a class. Parents feel the financial squeeze, too, as they find themselves having to put down deposits, buy computer insurance and accessories, and even pay replacement costs for the expensive equipment that their children are now expected to carry with them every day.

Evans writes, "As technology continues to advance, educators will be watching to see whether more computers mean a better education for South Dakota students." But as this blog and Professor Schaaf at South Dakota Politics have pointed out, researchers have already found that the integration of laptops into the curriculum fails to produce any solid academic gains. Some high schools that bought into one-to-one laptop computing early are already abandoning the concept as all buck and no bang.

Smith seems to be reading this research and is willing to challenge the idea that more technology is automatically better:

Can we still do a fine job of educating students and have them well prepared top succeed in the a changing world with the mobile labs we're adding? Absolutely. Is it critical to have everyone have their own computer to do that good job of educating? No.

Smith is clearly no reactionary desperately trying to preserve the sanctity of a librarian's precious books (books! such an antiquated method of transferring information -- no hyperlinks, no embedded video, no flashing graphics, just... oh, knowledge). She recognizes that technology has its place; that place just isn't in every kid's hands and backpack every moment of the school day.

Can small schools really integrate laptops and other technology into their classrooms more quickly and efficiently than large schools? That remains an open policy question. But the more important question is, "Should any schools, large or small, make the effort to integrate laptops into the curriculum?" Governor Rounds and the 41 schools buying into his Classroom Connections program seem to think that question is already settled, but as Librarian Smith and available research demonstrate, that question remains open for debate as well.