County

Yankton County Commission Chairman Dan Klimisch listens to a member of the audience testify regarding budget money for The Center during Tuesday’s County Commission meeting. 

The Yankton County Commission approved its 2020 provisional budget Tuesday night, but a late budget deal could spare three organizations from proposed cuts.

An overflow crowd poured into the hallway of the Yankton County Government Center, with nearly all of the audience members indicating they were attending because of the budget.

The proposal calls for around $26,000 in cuts, including entities now receiving money under cost-sharing agreements between the Yankton County and the City of Yankton.

However, Tuesday’s approval of the 2020 provisional budget isn’t the last word.

“These figures aren’t set in stone,” said County Commission Chairman Dan Klimisch.

He noted two more budget hearings are scheduled, for Aug. 20 and Sept. 3, he said.

During Tuesday’s budget hearing, a number of audience members offered comments supporting The Center, Yankton Community Library, Chan Gurney Municipal Airport and the Yankton County Historical Society.

Dave Mingo, community economic development director for the City of Yankton, presented an overview of the city-county partnerships and cost-sharing agreements involving The Center, library and airport.

The Center has developed a pressing need to fix its air conditioning, Mingo said.

The Center’s financial situation has improved slightly in the six weeks since Yankton City Manager Amy Leon appeared at the County Commission meeting, Mingo said. As a result, the amount of the city-county cost share has slightly declined, he added.

In addition, Mingo provided an overview of the airport’s activity and its importance to the region.

Other audience members offering public comments included The Center executive director Christy Hauer, Yankton County Historical Society executive director Crystal Nelson and Yankton Community Library executive director Dana Schmidt.

Klimisch noted the county was also looking at hiring a human resource director and allocating funds for the ambulance service.

County Commissioner Cheri Loest pointed out that the county donated $240,000 during the current fiscal year to a number of local and regional organizations.

Overall, the county was considering an 11 percent cut from those funds, she added.

However, the county’s provisional budget could restore cuts in a number of key areas under a possible arrangement with Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG), Loest said.

Currently, Yankton County contributes $50,000 annually to YAPG under a multi-year agreement, Loest said. She has spoken with YAPG Executive Director Nancy Wenande about reducing the annual contribution to $25,000 for fiscal year 2020. That $25,000 reduction for YAPG would allow Yankton County to restore its proposed cuts for The Center, Chan Gurney Airport and the Yankton Community Library, the commissioners noted.

Under the agreement, Yankton County could pay the remaining $25,000 at the close of 2020 if it finds itself in an improved financial situation, Loest said. The commissioners noted the county could realize increased income from outside prisoners housed at the Yankton County Jail, as one example.

If the county can’t make the $25,000 payment, the ongoing agreement would be modified to add an additional year of Yankton County contributions to YAPG, Loest said.

She added that she considered that the YAPG was making an agreeable gesture with its willingness to take a reduced contribution for one year in order to benefit the county’s budget situation.

At that point, Commissioner Gary Swensen asked if YAPG would waive the entire $50,000 for 2020.

Wenande, who was in the audience, said she couldn’t make that kind of a commitment.

“That’s up to our (YAPG) board of directors,” she said.

Wenande said she understood the county’s tight budget. However, she noted, as a former Yankton mayor, she and other city officials needed to make tough budget decisions and yet honor commitments.

“As far as the $50,000, I see it as an investment, not as donation,” Wenande said, noting the figure amounts to $2.19 per county resident.

For the money, YAPG seeks to stimulate economic development and expand the Yankton County tax base, Wenande said.

At the present time, Yankton County suffers from a workforce shortage, Wenande said.

“We have 800 job openings,” she said, with employers asking for assistance in finding workers.

As part of the continuing budget decision, County Commissioner Don Kettering said he considered himself a conservative. “I don’t see government as a cure-all,” he said.

Yankton County has benefited financially from its jail, Kettering said.

“We have the luxury of a jail system operating at a profit,” he said, adding that the facility continues to meet Yankton County needs while housing other counties’ inmates.

Kettering added that he preferred restoring the planned cuts “than chip seal three or four miles of road that won’t do diddly squat. It would be like a gnat on an elephant’s ass,” he said.

Loest said she disagreed with Kettering’s sentiment when it comes to tackling the county’s infrastructure needs. While two or three miles may not seem like much at the time, Yankton County has found itself falling behind on its roads and bridges.

“We need to put away (funds) for roads,” she said.

County Commissioner Joe Healy said budget cuts are painful decisions.

“There’s isn’t an organization we don’t support. We do support them,” he said. “And we have our partnership with the city.”

Klimisch said he welcomed the large turnout for Tuesday’s budget discussion. In the past, the commission has spent 7-8 hours wading through hundreds of pages of budget figures with little, if any, public input.

Tuesday’s meeting provided the commission with a strong sense of what county residents desire with their presence and comments, Klimisch said.

 “We need to get that input,” he said. “This isn’t our (commissioners’) budget. This is for all of us. This is our budget.”

In other business:

• Swensen is banned from Yankton City Hall because of a controversial Facebook post, Mayor Nathan Johnson said at Tuesday night’s county meeting.

Swensen had posted a cartoon on his personal Facebook page in which a woman is shown in the confessional with a Catholic priest. The woman asks forgiveness for killing the woman was there “to confess her sins, not her public service.”

The Facebook cartoon was posted in connection with a Yankton City Commission meeting, Johnson said. The mayor said he immediately conveyed his concerns about the message to city and county officials and did not receive a response from Swensen in regards to an email about the cartoon.

“Commissioner Swensen is no longer welcome in City Hall,” Johnson said, adding that department heads who feel uncomfortable with his presence on city property can ask him to leave with or without the assistance of law enforcement.

In addition, Johnson has asked Klimisch to remove Swensen from joint city-county committees and groups.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Swensen said the cartoon’s reference to killing a politician was actually referring to threats to him as a targeted politician. He cited two incidents in which he claimed he was threatened for his stands on large-scale livestock barns, commonly known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO).

“Both of those individuals (connected to) the attack and the threats are hog barn CAFO owners and operators who live in Yankton County,” Swensen said in a statement he read for the record.

However, Johnson said city officials saw the cartoon as a direct reference to them. The mayor said he reached out to Swensen for an explanation but had not yet heard from him six days later, prior to Tuesday night’s County Commission meeting.

After the appearance of Swensen’s Facebook post, a number of city commissioners and employees said they felt uncomfortable after reading the cartoon, Johnson said. They considered it a possible safety threat, headed.

Swensen explained the Facebook post, saying the cartoon and his intentions were misunderstood.

In addition, Swensen criticized last week’s front-page editorial in the Press & Dakotan. The editorial characterized the Facebook post as a dangerous message which could be taken as a threat or encouraging violence against public officials.

The P&D editorial said the Facebook post “went too far” and crossed the line, particularly for a public official.

He said the editorial was unfair and didn’t present his side of the story.

“In regard to the recent Facebook cartoon that the local Yankton, S.D., media has posted on the front page news, I would like to explain that the people who I tagged most know and understand that I, Gary Swensen, am the politician depicted in the cartoon,” he said.

“Two times, there have been violent incidents against me in Yankton County.

“The first time, I was attacked by a local Yankton County resident just after a Yankton County Commission meeting. I reported the incident to the Yankton County sheriff’s department and filed a report.

“The second incident happened this year, 2019. I was threatened by another Yankton County resident in which I filed a report with the Yankton County sheriff’s office.

“Both of these individuals (in) the attack and the threats are hog barn CAFO owners and operators who live in Yankton County.”

Swensen then turned his attention to the Press & Dakotan editorial, not mentioning the daily newspaper by name.

“It is unfortunate that the local press have thrown me under the bus so quickly, never — I repeat never — asking me, Gary Swensen, my side of the story about the cartoon,” he said. “I am saddened by all this hate in our country and especially in our pristine Yankton County.”

Swensen said he was sorry if any particular religion was offended by the cartoon.

“I apologize to the people with their names on the cartoon, the Catholic Church and all other religious leaders and organizations,” he said.

Swensen closed his statement with a reference to the media.

“Sadly, the song by Don Henley says it best about news reporters,” he said, then citing a line from the Henley song “Dirty Laundry.”

He asked Yankton County Auditor Patty Hojem to enter the entire statement into the record as part of the meeting minutes.

“In closing, I, Gary Swensen, am the politician in the cartoon,” he said. “Again, my (apologies) to any and all who are offended by this cartoon.”

• The meeting was running about two hours behind schedule, with about half the agenda remaining as of 10 p.m.

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