County frustration grows on CSP expenses

Jason Ferguson

The State of South Dakota has the perfect business model when it comes to Custer State Park, according to the Custer County Commission and some officials with Custer County: collect all the money from the park while Custer County provides the services to the park.
“I’ve been very vocal with the state on this,” said Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley. “I’ve talked to everybody I can. I continually fight over this. I don’t think it’s right for taxpayers to keep funding all the services for the park and they (the state) keeps all the money (generated in the park).
The long-simmering complaints the county has with the state regarding the park—namely, county first responders constantly responding to events in the park as well as no property tax money from the 76,000 acres exempt from such taxes—came to a boil at the Nov. 15 meeting of the Custer County Commission during the portion of the meeting where Mechaley sought approval for the contracts between the state and the county for law enforcement and dispatch services from July 1 to June 30, which both see the state pay $8,678.17 to the county, which Mechaley and the commission say doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of Custer County taxpayer money that is spent responding to incidents within the park.
Because of that, the commission reluctantly voted to accept the money after initially discussing the idea of rejecting the money out of protest, with some in attendance even suggesting only giving “eight thousand dollars worth of service” to the park.
“I’ll take their money,” Mechaley said, adding it was his office’s obligation to respond when people needed the sheriff’s office help in the county, and that he would never consider just not responding to calls.
“I don’t like the idea of these small contracts, but to be realistic we’re not going to stop helping people,” he said. “If someone is out there committing domestic violence, we’re not going to say, ‘sorry, you’re not paid up.’ That’s just not going to happen.”
Mechaley said he didn’t see it as an issue of the park not paying his office enough for his services, but more that he doesn’t want his office taking the lead in providing law enforcement in the park.
“The idea, ‘well we could pay more money; I don’t want your money,’” Mechaley said. “I want you to take care of your park. This should not be put on our shoulders. It shouldn't be us figuring out how much we spend (in the park), it should be them taking care of their park. If they need help, we can work something out.”
Mechaley said he took his complaints to Pierre to meet with legislators conducting a summer study, and believes some eyes were opened although ultimately no additional money was allocated.
“It’s a Pierre issue,” he said. “We opened a lot of eyes. I know we did.”
Mechaley made it a point to point out his issue is not with park conservation officers (the park law enforcement, of which there are three), but rather, with the higher ups who determine the hours for the law enforcement and decide what authority the conservation officers have.
“The park rangers are good people. They help us. We all work together,” he said. “I’m not complaining about law enforcement there. It’s the people above them making these choices and don’t see what’s going on.”
He added if someone hits a deer in the park, it is a sheriff’s office deputy who has to write the accident report.
Mechaley recalled past wedding receptions that got rowdy or fights in the park employee dorms that required sheriff’s office deputies to respond because the park is short staffed or the conservation officers stopped working at 7 p.m.
“It’s costing us money and putting our officers at risk,” Mechaley said.
Mechaley did applaud a change made at the park that sees conservation officers now having a calling tree that sees them helping with such calls.
That didn’t satisfy commission chairman Jim Lintz, who said the park is “so far off what they are paying compared to the services they are getting it’s ridiculous.”
“We are providing services for two million people and not getting paid for 500 people,” he said. “I think it’s a crime what the state is doing to us.”
Mechaley likened it to a city with a population of 30,000 (an average of the park population in the summer), saying a city that size would normally have 60 police officers on staff.
Commissioner Craig Hindle said nothing would be done until the county holds the state’s feet to the fire, saying the county needs to make more of an issue of the situation.
“Throw them under the bus and back it up,” he said.
The state also gives Custer County Search and Rescue and the Custer Volunteer Fire Department money annually, which is also the $8,600 this year. Mechaley said SAR’s $8,600 is “burned up by June” with all of the calls it answers in the park.
Roads are yet another issue, as county highway superintendent Jess Doyle said he was presented with a contract for magnesium chloride from the park, and it is half of what it was this year. This year’s contract helped pay for maintenance on all four roads into the park (LH Road, Lame Johnny Road, Lower French Creek Road and America Center Road), and Doyle said the contract paying half as much for next year as was paid this year means only two of the roads will likely be covered.
Mechaley also touched on a contract for dispatch services with the Town of Hermosa, something the county has done annually. During that conversation he mentioned the town marshall Hermosa hired quit about a month into the job, once again leaving the Town of Hermosa without its own law enforcement. As such, that responsibility has fallen back on the sheriff’s office.
Mechaley said he asked Hermosa Town Board president Jerry Styles if the town planned to advertise the position again, but Mechaley expressed doubt the town would find good candidates, but that he hopes they will find someone.
“I just really urged them to find their own person,” he said. “I can’t provide them the service they want.”

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