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South Dakota legislators spar over fate of state-run home for people with intellectual disabilities

The South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield cares for 80 residents with mental and developmental disabilities, but some legislators sitting on the state's top budget committee think the state should find a cheaper way to provide those services.

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Rep. Taffy Howard, Republican from Rapid City, listens to testimony as the South Dakota Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee meets at the state Capitol on Thursday, Jan 14. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
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PIERRE, S.D. — A meeting of South Dakota legislators devolved into bickering Wednesday, July 21, over a state health facility in Redfield, S.D., that some conservative legislators want to ax.

Shawnie Rechtenbaugh, secretary for the Department of Human Services , addressed the committee overseeing state spending, following up on a visit some committee members made last month to the South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield, where they saw first-hand the care patients receive. But lawmakers also posed questions about budgeting and efficiencies, given the campus' decline in residents.

The Redfield campus is a short-term residential care facility for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. But in recent years, it's come under the scrutiny of appropriators.

On Wednesday she ticked off a number of cost-cutting moves the campus has taken on, including selling land and buildings, centralizing services on the campus, and leaving vacant certain staffing. Rechtenbaugh noted the SDDC served 1,200 residents in the 1960s and around 80 today.

"The services we provide are a very specialized service for individuals who are not yet ready or net yet able to live in the community," Rechtenbaugh said.

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Still, Rechtenbaugh's presentation didn't sate some legislators on the Republican-dominated committee who are looking for cost-savings. Co-chair Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, pressed Rechtenbaugh for imposing a "five-year-strategic plan" on the Department of Health's operations in Redfield.

"To me, it seems like it'd be very appropriate to have something more concrete and strategic laid out on paper," Karr said.

Rechtenbaugh said that DHS has a strategic plan, and that a recent consultant's report provided SDDC internal working documents that she could summarize for the committee.

"The services we provide, we know there's a need for it," Rechtenbaugh said.

But some appropriators on the committee suggested they had no intention of thinking long-term about the Redfield facility.

"We just need to be honest with Redfield and tell them, 'We're closing this thing down with a certain number of years,'" said Rep. Steve Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls, suggesting the state pays "$300,000" per person cared for at the site.

Haugaard said the remaining residents at the facility could be moved to the Human Services Center in Yankton.

But his broadside was almost immediately rebuked by Sen. Brock Greenfield , R-Clark, whose district includes Redfield. Greenfield said lawmakers had "ambush[ed]" Rechtenbaugh and dismissed strategic changes happening in Redfield, where employees are, in his words, overworked and underpaid.

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"This is a broader policy discussion that shouldn't happen [with] people spit-balling in appropriations in the summer," Greenfield said.

Last legislative session, lawmakers passed and Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill to demolish a hall and root cellar on Redfield's campus. While further land sales are possible, Rechtenbaugh cautioned that a previous sale of property netted just under $800, due in part to needed asbestos abatement in the buildings.

In response to Greenfield's remarks, Rep. Taffy Howard , R-Rapid City, said she thought "all state employees are awesome," but a conversation needed to start about closing the Redfield facility.

"I don't ever want a member of this committee to feel intimidated into not being able to say whatever they want to say," Howard said.

Eventually, co-chair Sen. Jean Hunhoff , R-Yankton, ended the debate, saying no action was on the table.

In recent weeks, low morale among employees at state facilities has landed in the news with the high-profile firing of two wardens and the Secretary of the Department of Corrections being placed on administrative leave . These were in response to a whistleblower report sounding the alarm, in part, on low pay and public employee benefits.

The Legislature created the facility at the end of the 19th century, and for years it was known as the Redfield State Hospital and School.

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State Sen. Brock Greenfield (left) questions officials with the state Department of Human Services during a appropriations committee hearing to discuss the department's 2021 budget in November in Pierre, S.D. Shannon Marvel / Forum News Service

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