Commission candidates queried at forum

People who attended Tuesday's Clay County commissioner candidate forum learned that the five candidates seeking to be elected to two upcoming vacancies on the commission agree much more than disagree on issues important to county government.

Republicans Jere Chapman and Leonard Rasmussen; Democrats Phyllis Packard and Leslie Kephart, an incumbent commissioner seeking re-election; and independent Grant Sammelson, a former mayor of the city of Vermillion, are campaigning to be elected to four-year terms on the commission.

County voters will be asked to vote for two of the candidates in the Nov. 2 general election.

Packard, who recently retired after serving as the city's solid waste manager, said she decided to run after being asked by a number of people in the community to seek office.

"I felt that, after retiring from the city of Vermillion's solid waste department, I still have a great deal of experience and knowledge in government, budgets and grants, and in a lot of issues that the county could utilize," she said. "I feel that I still have a lot of service to provide."

Packard said it is important for Clay County to begin work on a flood abatement plan.

"This is something that is an issue throughout the state, and definitely here in the county," she said. "I would also like to see an increase in recycling in the rural areas."

She also believes the county government needs to play a greater role in spurring economic development by improving recreational opportunities at the Missouri River.

Rasmussen, a Vermillion native, is retiring after serving 12 years as the county's director of equalization.

"I have worked with a lot of people over the years, and I'd like to continue to provide my service to people," he said. "I'm willing to listen and solve problems, if they are capable of being solved. We do have some tough issues that are facing the county. I've been on about every property in Clay County – every house, every road, every farm place – and I know some of the situations people have, and some of the problems that are out there.

"I'm willing to work real hard for the people of Clay County and do the best job possible," he said.

Grant Sammelson, also a Vermillion native, served on the city's Planning Commission for two years, and served a two-year term as mayor. He has operated an excavating business in the community for 30 years.

"I've been able to meet a lot of local people from all walks of life, and hopefully, if elected, I'll be willing to listen and try to get problems solved," he said.

Jere Chapman, a long-time Vermillion resident, business owner and past member of the Vermillion City Council, said he decided to seek the office of county commissioner as a way to contribute back to the community.

"It seems to me that, in the past, the city and county have had some conflicts and could get along a little bit better," he said. "If elected, I would really like to help bridge that gap. I feel I can listen to all sides of a discussion and do what's best for the taxpayers and the county."

Chapman said he has no past experience as a county commissioner, but understands finance issues through his business experiences. "I'm eager to learn and to serve," he said.

Kephart, a Vermillion native, served as a deputy with the Clay County Sheriff's Department for nearly 30 years before retiring.

"After that, a position on the commission became open and I ran for that, and I've been on the commission for about eight years," he said.

The candidates were asked about a variety of issues, including the impact that the Hyperion Energy Center would have on Clay County if it were constructed, as proposed, in Union County near Elk Point.

"I know they (the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources) will listen to both sides so that when it's all done, the right choice will be made for South Dakota," Sammelson said. "We have to prepare, whether or not it is built. I'd like to see more development in other areas. If it is built, I think we better be prepared with our emergency services and housing and stuff like that."

Chapman said if the Hyperion Refinery is constructed, "it will affect us in ways we can't even imagine right now. As a County Commission, we'll have to insure that we have all of the things in place to make sure things are orderly.

"It will be a bit of a minor nightmare or major nightmare, depending on what side of the fence you are," he said. "We're going to have to be ready, but I don't know exactly what that means, because we've never faced anything like this. We'll have to turn to a lot of different experts and make sure we are ready."

"I think our emergency services are going to experience some of that nightmare if this (Hyperion) comes into being," Kephart said. "I think Union County is going to likely profit from this way more than we are. Our schools are going to take a big hit, and I've got to hear more about this."

"The county would do good to actually do some planning, whether it be for a Hyperion or any kind of major development that's going to increase population and needs for services," Packard said.

"Hyperion is a sore subject to a lot of people," Rasmussen said. "The impact – the county might see some, but not as much as the city. You're going to have Union County and Lincoln County (that will be impacted), and how we handle this is a good question.

"There would definitely be an impact, and some of it may carry over to the county, but I think the cities should be the ones that really have to look at a good plan for it," he said.

The candidates were asked if they would pursue further efficiencies in county government, including the possible consolidation of various county offices.

"We should study into those, and look at those with several other people so that we get more than just one opinion," Kephart said. "I would say that's something that we should probably take a look at someday."

"This county runs on a pretty efficient, tight budget as far as personnel," Packard said. "I must admit my focus would be more on trying to look for other sources of revenue and for economic development.

"I think we should look at tourism, and trying to bring more people into our beautiful area and make it a destination," she said, "so that there are more people coming here to visit and possibly to live."

"I've worked for the county for 30 years, and I know all of the offices, and I think they are all being run efficiently," Rasmussen said. "I hate to see anything cut, because once you start to cut, you lose services. … I agree with Phyllis that we need to look for economic development and try to bring some more tax dollars into the county as best we can."

Sammelson suggested that some efficiency could be achieved by filling county job vacancies with people who would be willing to do the work for a smaller fee. "I'd also like to look at user fees."

Both Sammelson and Chapman said greater efficiencies could be achieved immediately if County Commission members' compensation didn't include health insurance.

"I'm not in favor of health coverage for county commissioners," Chapman said. "If all commissioners didn't take it, that's $28,000 a year that could be saved."

He added that greater consolidation likely could be achieved among the layers of government that exist in the county.

"I don't have a clue about the different functions on the county level that could be consolidated, but we need to look at that all of the time," he said.

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