Douglas County is the first county in the state — and perhaps the nation — to take part in a program that is designed to return young attorneys from the Big City to Small Town America.
The Rural Attorney Recruitment Program enacted by last year’s South Dakota Legislature will help establish recent law school graduate Jake Fischer on Corsica’s Main Street, as an extension of the Swier Law Office, Avon. While Corsica Development Corporation and attorney Scott Swier had been working on the program, it took the participation of the Douglas County commissioners to meet the program’s state guidelines.
Bob Wilcox of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners said Douglas County fits the description of small and rural with its 3,800 population figure.
With the affirmative Nov. 5 vote by the commissioners, and a promise of $500 per year for five years, the program can move forward. The commissioners had been asked for $1,200 per year, but after receiving only $500 per year, Swier assured the board the remaining money would be found.
Indeed, Douglas County is the first in the nation to participate, said Amy Bartling, a Gregory attorney working with the State Bar Association to promote the program.
The Nov. 5 vote put Chair Karen Blume in an awkward position. Her constituents, said Blume, had expressed their opposition to the plan and she then voted against it. And yet, she would be asked to sign the agreement and be involved in any publicity surrounding it. She refused.
Commission Vice Chair Floyd Muntefering then signed the agreement and posed for pictures in her place.
During last year’s Legislature, Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson led the drive, along with the S.D. Bar Association and the S.D. Association of County Commissioners, for passage of the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program. Gilbertson had noted the problem of the state’s small town attorneys aging and retiring, but not being replaced by younger attorneys. The bill, passed by the Legislature, went into effect July 1.
The program helps young attorneys get settled into a small community, and, over five years, forgives about 90 percent of their law school tuition.
Participation in the state program hinged on approval by the county where such an attorney would be located.
Corsica, Inc., the arm of the Corsica Development Corporation, provided $9,975 in refurbishing an empty Main Street building and several other incentives including free rent for the first year of occupancy. The second year also was promised at 50 percent off.
Dave Lambert, facilitator for the Corsica Development Corporation, told the commissioners the money was a good investment. Since there would be money coming into the county, it would be keeping people from leaving the county in search of a specialized attorney, and there would be sales tax revenue resulting, he said.
Also, Lambert said, “it adds to people’s perception of this area as progressive.”
He added that Fischer would be serving the entire county, specializing in agricultural law, with the Swier firm providing additional legal expertise in the field. Earlier, it had been noted that none of the attorneys in the area deal with this, and that farmers are taking their business to Sioux Falls attorneys.
Lambert said it had been “difficult” to do added fundraising for the program, as “people typically see attorneys as extra” in their community.
The commissioners, who have been struggling with balancing the budget and worrying about preserving the county highway system, were sympathetic.
Commissioner Sue Denning said everyone probably agreed it was a good program, “but it comes down to the money — we don’t have any.”
Commissioner Ewald Fink said that, just two months ago, the county took away a tax incentive on new farm and commercial construction “to help generate more money” for the county’s bottom line. How does it look, he asked, to then turn around and give money to this program?
“Lawyers can enhance a community in many ways,” said Bartling, adding, “the more lawyers you have, the more business” and more sales tax generated.
According to Suzanne Starr-Kappes of Unified Judicial System, Pierre, the county would have to contribute something, even if it didn’t make up the entire $6,000. But, it appeared the money the commissioners did decide to contribute would probably come back in the form of sales tax revenues and increased traffic in the county.
Currently, Swier said, the firm has national clients, all of whom are paying sales tax along with their billing.
“We are going to bring people to Douglas County, (to) Corsica, and it even spreads further,” said Swier. He noted the firm also supports the community, as any other local business would.
Once the vote was taken by the commissioners, with Blume voting no, Bartling commented that Douglas County is “the first one in the entire nation to support this program.” There could be some resulting national publicity for the county, she added, because of the county’s participation in the pilot program.