“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” This old saying is a good description of how we have approached managing state government in the last seven years.
Before us come so many issues – deferred maintenance, highways, criminal justice, teacher pay – that can’t be solved in one year. But a start must be made. We could kick the can down the road, but the problem would only worsen. And so, we must do what we can, with patience, persistence and attention to small details, to be a good steward of the state and its assets.
When I was running for governor, I promised to analyze state-owned property and right-size or sell unneeded assets. In the 1800s, when South Dakota became a state, we housed people with mental or physical problems in large, state-owned institutions, often for life. We built big state hospital campuses in Yankton, Redfield and Custer. Sadly, many people were often sent away, and forgotten by their families.
We now know that, in most cases, it is better to serve our citizens in their homes and communities, often through community-based providers. But the state has continued to own these large, old campuses, decades later. Some of the buildings were still being used, but others had fallen into disrepair after being vacant for decades.
It’s irresponsible to let vacant buildings fall in on themselves, and also irresponsible to spend taxes maintaining unneeded property. It’s better to return these properties to the tax rolls.
We began to address this in Yankton at the Human Services Center. We demolished several dilapidated buildings, sold land that was no longer needed, and negotiated a lease-purchase with the local Historical Society to preserve the historic Mead Building. That restoration, funded by charitable gifts and local taxes, is well-underway, and the progress is impressive.
We have addressed this problem on other state campuses – selling surplus property in Redfield, Custer County and Minnehaha County. We sold STAR Academy to a local entrepreneur and the Plankinton training school campus to the for-profit company that was leasing and operating it. And the Board of Regents is exploring options to better use the School for the Deaf campus in Sioux Falls.
This philosophy extends to current state buildings as well. We must properly maintain them, so future governors and legislatures aren’t left with more rundown buildings. We have set a goal of appropriating two percent of value in maintenance and repair of state buildings, including university buildings. This year I’m proposing to add state-owned technical institute buildings as well.
On our farm, when I was a boy, we always had a big garden, and we ordered plants and seeds by mail from Gurney’s in Yankton. With every order, Gurney’s would always enclose a “bonus” item, as a gift. One year, our bonus was a hackberry bare-root seedling, only a foot long. My dad and I planted that seedling, and now, 50 years later, it’s strong and tall.
Five decades from now, when a new generation of South Dakotans is at the helm, I have no doubt they will benefit from the trees we are planting today. We are sowing seeds which will leave our state better than we found it.