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South Dakota Has Fewest People Per County; Meade, Butte Consider Merging Dispatch

The United States has a population of 327,000,000. It has 3,142 counties (or parishes, independent cities, or other equivalents). That’s a nationwide average of 104,000 people per county. South Dakota has a population of 882,000. We have 66 counties. That’s an average of about 13,400 people per county, the lowest average county population out of all states.

Nationally, the average size of a county is 1,124 square miles. South Dakota’s counties average 2% larger than that average, at 1,149 square miles. Fifteen states have a larger average county size. California covers twice plus 5% more land with 45 times more people than South Dakota, yet the state our leaders like to mock as an example of government excess manages with just 58 counties, averaging 2,686 square miles and 682,000 people (that’s more than the population of Wyoming).

Those figures suggest South Dakota could afford to consolidate counties. If we sought California’s efficiency, merging counties to reach California’s level of geographic efficiency, we’d have 28 counties.

Meade County is our largest county by land area; Butte County is seventh-largest. Combined, they take up 5,720 square miles of West River and fill that space with 38,500 people. Meade and Butte counties are having trouble providing emergency communication services, so they are in talks to merge their dispatch centers:

“We’re extremely interested,” Butte County Commissioner Kim Richards said to the Meade County officials.

Personnel costs will be the major savings, [Meade County Sheriff Ron] Merwin said.

“Probably the only place you’re really going to see a lot of savings is personnel unfortunately, or fortunately, however you look at it,” he said.

…Coming up with a workable solution has been Meade County’s priority, [Meade County Commissioner Doreen] Creed said. “Some of our initial figures show that it would be a significant savings for both counties and our cities and since we’re all so cash-strapped, we thought it would be worth it to enter into some negotiations,” she said [Lacey Peterson, “Meeting of the Minds,” Black Hills Pioneer, 2019.10.18].

Neither county has a population greater than 30,000, but together they’ll cross that threshold and qualify for additional state funding:

Currently there is a $1.25 monthly surcharge on all telephones both landline and cellular, and 2% fee on all pre-paid wireless service.

That money is submitted by telephone carriers to the state Department of Revenue and then distributed to counties based on how many phones are in the county. The county usually then earmarks that money for the dispatch center.

Centers that serve more than 30,000 people receive extra funding.

Here is the breakdown of how the allocation of the $1.25 911 surcharge is handled :70% or $0.875 goes back to the counties and 30% (or $0.375) goes to the 911 Emergency Fund.

Of the $0.375: 74% or $0.278 goes to the 911 Coordination Fund for NG911; and 26% or $0.097 goes to eligible Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) based on population (30,000 or more) and compliance with administrative rule

King said that if Butte and Meade counties were to combine their PSAPs, they would be eligible, based upon population, to receive a portion of the 911 Emergency Fund as outlined above [Deb Holland, “Butte, Meade Counties Discuss Dispatch Merger,” Black Hills Pioneer, 2019.06.14].

Meade and Butte counties have found one way to get more money from our tight-fisted state: consolidate services! How many other counties could follow suit, and in how many services, to get our county’s closer to California’s exemplary efficiency?


  1. grudznick 2019-10-19 08:43

    My close, personal friend, Lar, and I used to advocate together for fewer counties. We would travel around pushing our idea of 33 counties. Now Lar is gone and I realize his mind was clouded with hate and fog from toking the Demon Weed.

    Now grudznick advocates alone for 8 counties and 8 districts in the legislatures.

  2. Porter Lansing 2019-10-19 08:48

    Arizona has 7 million people and 15 counties.

  3. Donald Pay 2019-10-19 09:37

    I’d suggest that some smart people could put together a study that would consider the idea of consolidating local government into fewer units. It could be done by consolidating school districts and counties, or by folding school districts into counties. If you consolidated school districts into county government, you could then convert positions in county government into a nonpartisan positions as others want to do.

    I’ve stated on DFP before that South Dakota has some experience in consolidation because the state did this once with garbage disposal, closing a lot of local dumps and consolidating them into larger regional landfills. What South Dakota did with garbage could be replicated with school children.

    I wouldn’t go off half-Grudzed on this, though. It needs careful study. In the case of landfills, the USEPA did various modeling studies looking at the optimal size for a landfill in terms of operating costs and safety. Those studies were the underpinning of both South Dakota’s solid waste regulatory framework and the solid waste initiative I help fashion in 1990. Similar studies could be done in South Dakota on county and school governance. You would want to know what impacts to small towns and cities might happen with government consolidation. It could be devastating. Would the savings you might get be at the cost of towns that withered away? That might be too high a cost. It might also vastly increase the feeling among rural residence that no one cares about them.

  4. John 2019-10-19 18:50

    SD designed the counties with the “days horse ride” as a largely governing criteria. To wit, to ride the buggy from the farm to the county seat to complete business, shopping, and return home in 1 day. Mostly. Especially East River. Only a couple counties consolidated since statehood – almost all were west river counties. Go figure. (Washington, Armstrong, Washabaugh . . . others?)

    I advocated here that SD should follow the WY model to consolidate to 20ish counties, and 1 state university with several community colleges to feed the state university. SD should also adopt the Nebraska unicameral legislature with 50ish senators and dump the ridiculousness of 105 members who are under paid and accomplish little.

    The sad truth is South Dakotans are in love with government. They think that nearly everyone should be in government: from townships, to counties, to state legislature. Add school boards, towns, special districts, and one finds that “government” is a SD staple of income and life – regardless of inefficiency or effectiveness. If the federal government were as bloated per capita as is the South Dakota government folks would riot.

  5. Debbo 2019-10-19 21:59

    Perkins and Harding ought to be at the top of the list to consolidate and share space. Those folks could sure help each other out more efficiently.

    What county is MacIntosh seat of? That county has the puniest, most ordinary and rather rundown county building I’ve ever seen. It’s a 2 storey, white, wooden square. That poor county appears to be in dire straits.

    Consolidating and sharing government services is more economical, but painful. If, for example, Perkins and Harding consolidated governments, including schools, who gets the county seat? high school? elementary school? and so on.

    County seat in Buffalo, schools in Prairie City? But then if mom drives into town and picks the children up from school, she can’t also renew license tabs while she’s there.

    No easy answers, but it should be done.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-10-20 09:58

    Donald, would folding school districts into county government put school funding in peril when county governments look for ways to fund their jails and roads? Does having a separate tax levy for education protect it from competition with other public needs?

  7. Donald Pay 2019-10-20 12:03

    Cory, the funding would have to come from different pots of dedicated revenue.

  8. Bob Klein 2019-10-20 12:19

    If we were to get together a group of professionals whose purpose was to design the most efficient possible government, it wouldn’t take them long to decide we have too many units of government. However, we still have citizen participation in such matters. As long as those citizens have economic conflicts that support the additional units of government, we will have too many units.

    But it sure doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.

  9. grudznick 2019-10-20 19:08

    Ms. Debbo, your ignorance of South Dakota is so obvious, since you are an out-of-state name-caller.

    Schools are in Bison in Perkins County. Prairie City is a hick town without even a speakeasy worth visiting.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-10-21 05:40

    I can see the need to find a happy medium on dispatch services. Local 911 operators may have better knowledge of where callers are and how to give cops directions to get to the scene of the emergency… although I suppose GPS can fill in gaps in geographical knowledge for dispatchers and responders.

    Can we preserve citizen participation by putting all meetings online, with live interaction available, the way many state boards do with teleconferences?

  11. W R Old Guy 2019-10-21 10:27

    Governor Janklow wanted to turn 911 dispatch over to state radio and would have operated from three locations in the state ( Pierre, Sioux Falls and Rapid City if memory serves me correctly.) It was shot down by the counties over the lack of familiarity of a dispatcher in Pierre knowing the local areas of the various jurisdictions. This was also before the statewide street addressing and enhanced 911. The cost of upgrading the 911 centers to meet today’s requirements for receiving text, twitter and video plus GPS location from cell phones is very difficult for counties to afford.

    It makes sense to consolidate several counties into one dispatch center and split the cost .

  12. mike from iowa 2019-10-21 12:09

    Make west river ranchers and Reservations get GPS coordinates and street names and numbers or take away their right to vote, like North Dakota. yikes!

  13. W R Old Guy 2019-10-21 14:01

    The entire state has street addresses except the reservations which in many cases have their own dispatch. The reservations are sovereign from the state.

    Janklow’s proposal was seen by many as a power and money grab because the law levying seventy-five cents per month per residential phone line for 911 service had just gone into effect. Commercial lines paid a slightly higher rate as I recall. The money could only be used for 911 services including salaries, equipment, etc.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-10-21 21:46

    WROG, did some of that phone tax money go for something other than those specified 911 services? Did it benefit Janklow?

  15. W R Old Guy 2019-10-22 09:32


    The proposal was shot down. The money could have been legally used to build or remodel state radio dispatch centers. The 911 statute at the time had a lot of leeway on what was allowed use of 911 funds. The Highway Patrol needed to replace their obsolete radios and the legislature had refused to fund the project. 911 funds could have been used.

    There was also an unanswered question on the number of dispatchers on duty. A major event would quickly overwhelm one or two dispatchers on duty. Keeping dispatch local spread out the workload.

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