- Associated Press - Sunday, January 10, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Cash-strapped South Dakota counties are looking to state lawmakers to help keep up with rising costs for such things as courts and jails.

Lawmakers will consider legislation to boost county funding during the session that begins Tuesday. Proposals include a plan that would to allow them to impose a sales tax and a measure that would redistribute alcohol revenue from the state to the counties.

Advocates describe growing costs for court-appointed defense attorneys and mental health expenses, as well as jumps in spending to send prisoners to crowded jails.

“The jails are busting at the seams,” said Duane Sutton, president of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners. “There’s no relief in sight under the present funding formula.”

South Dakota counties get most of their revenue from property taxes, but state law limits yearly hikes. And about 80 percent of county spending is required by law, which limits flexibility for officials searching for a balanced budget.

In 2015, Brown County had to supplement its budget by nearly $370,000. Court-appointed attorney costs alone overran expectations by nearly $190,000, County Auditor Maxine Fischer said.

Brown County is luckier than others because it includes the growing city of Aberdeen, the third-largest in the state, said Sutton, who is a commissioner there. But he said the county may soon have to cut back on discretionary spending - including on mental health, a museum and library support - if the costs continue to grow.

“There’s 66 counties and there’s 66 different problems,” said Staci Ackerman, executive director of the South Dakota Sheriffs’ Association.

Lyman County has seen a significant increase in jail costs in the last several years largely from a spike in drug arrests along Interstate 90, Sheriff Steve Manger said. The office, which contracts with another county to house inmates, saw spending more than double between 2012 and 2014 to $114,000 for that year, though the costs dipped in 2015.

The increases are frustrating. Officials can’t control the number of people who get caught breaking the law, Manger said.

“If I could go out and say how many people were going to be arrested in Lyman County, I don’t think I’d be a sheriff,” he said. “I’d be in Las Vegas getting rich.”

Roberts County fell behind paying bills around 2008 in part because of jail salaries, and the county had to cut back significantly on its highway budget to get out of the hole, Chairman Roger George said. He said having more funding is necessary, but would likely be difficult to get.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed,” said Republican Rep. Kristin Conzet, who led a group last year studying county government. But even Conzet said she’s unsure if she would support the sales tax plan.

Advocates recognize that it will be difficult to advance this session with lawmakers expected to focus on expanding Medicaid and raising teacher pay. A separate proposal would require cities to reimburse counties for some court and jail expenses at a rate based on population.

County boosters are also focusing on a change that would distribute a third of the revenue from an alcohol tax - it brought in about $14.4 million last fiscal year - to the counties.

Both measures face a tough path in the Legislature and a wall in Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The governor opposes a sales tax for counties and a redistribution of the alcohol tax, spokeswoman Kelsey Pritchard said in an email.

Pritchard also pointed to new road and bridge funding for local governments passed in a highway package last session. Sutton credited the state for tackling transportation, but said counties will still emphasize the need for additional money.

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