Five seek seat on county commission

Jason Ferguson
By Jason Ferguson
Two incumbents, two newcomers and one familiar face will greet voters on the ballot in the face for two seats on the Custer County Commission during this year’s June 2 primary.
All of the candidates are Republican, and no Democratic candidates filed, although Independent candidates still have time to file.
Among the candidates are incumbent Jesse Sorenson. Sorenson, 39, has nearly four years as a commissioner under his belt, and said it has been an honor and a pleasure to represent county residents for the past three and a half years.
“ I feel that I have made a difference and would continue to make a difference with my conservative views,” he said. “I also have a very good relationship with multiple agencies within Custer County.”
The U.S. Forest Service and the South Dakota Department of Transportation are among those agencies, he said.
Sorenson is a system coordinator with Black Hills Electric Cooperative. In his job, he said, he travels on all Custer County roads and visits with many residents on a daily basis. He is a 25-year resident of the county, and says he has no plans to leave as he and wife Michelle continue to raise their two sons Regan, 12, and Curtis, 10. He has been a volunteer firefighter in Pringle for the past 10 years and a youth football coach for the past six years.
Familiar issues are at the forefront of Sorenson’s agenda should be be elected to a second term, including taxes. Sorenson said high property assessments are a double-edged sword, as it is good to have a piece of property that has a high value but it is a problem when you have to pay taxes based on that evaluation.  
“The county portion of property taxes are only about 10 percent of total tax but I feel we need to keep our budgets as low as possible to lower the effect of our portion on residents,” he said.” Sorenson points out the school portion of property taxes are over 60 percent, which the county has no control over.
Road maintenance is another issue Sorenson said he will keep his thumb on.
“It is my goal to keep roads in the best shape that we can within reason,” he said.
Sorenson said he is experienced in many areas and eager to learn more.
“I am young, energetic and I am willing to listen and take a proactive approach to all questions and concerns of Custer County residents,” he said. I bring a young view with me. I give 100 percent to anything I am involved in. I believe I can be a good voice for all Custer County residents who have questions and concerns.”
Fellow incumbent Mark Hartman has spent 12 years on the commission, and said he seeks reelection because he would like to see the continuation and completion of the hard work he has put in the last 12 years as a commission member.
“I want to continue to keep Custer the great place that it is,” he said.
Hartman, 48, is self-employed in home construction, and also serves on the county’s planning commission and the Custer County Housing Board. He said he has a proven track record for serving in the Custer community and standing up for what is right for taxpayers.
“I have lived my whole life in Custer and look out for landowners and what is best for the citizens of Custer County,” Hartman said, adding he believes he brings common sense to local government.
Like Sorenson, Hartman said escalating taxes is one of the largest issues facing the county. He said continuing to fight against their continually spike is among his priorities.
Hartman said he appreciates past support and enjoys serving the citizens of the county.
“I have worked very hard to help make Custer County a desired and respectable place to work and a great place to live,” he said.
Matt Steen of Hermosa, 45, said he has decided to run for a seat on the commission because he believes if you want something changed you have to go do it and not just “sit around and complain about it and hope someone else does it.”
Steen, who owns Steen Service & Repair, which does repairs on all types of vehicles and equipment, said he would bring knowledge of running a business and listening to what the people of the county want if he were to be elected.
Steen touts himself as a conservative Republican who does not like wasting money or resources. He has lived in Custer County most of his life, graduating from Custer High School and has networked throughout the county
Steen is a volunteer for the Custer County FAir and has served on the fair board as well. In addition, he has been on the board of the Hermosa Roping Club for 20 years and is a volunteer firefighter.
“I believe everyone should do whatever they can as a volunteer to make their community better,” he said.
Steen cited taxes and possible revenue issues from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest issues facing the county in the coming years.
Ellen Ballard, 74, is a rancher who spent 36 years as a language arts teacher. She has also worked as a farrier.
Ballard said there are several reasons she is running for a seat on the commission, having lived in Custer County for many years, the last 20 of which have been spent at Buffalo Gap. Even while living there she and husband Russ, who worked for 13 years as an industrial arts teacher, commuted to Custer.
“There seems to be a disconnect between the needs of this side of the county and those on the city side,” she said. “My goal is to listen to all sides hoping to find solutions.”
Ballard said due to of she and Russ’ own issues, she has paid closer attention to commission meetings recently, which triggered her run for office.
“Our life experiences have produced a different attitude toward people. We recognize everyone has different ideas and needs because their situations are unique,” she said. “That current COVID-19 situations illustrates this quite pointedly. Each person copes with challenges in their own way. That knowledge will be a valuable asset I will bring to this job.”
Ballard said Custer County residents are concerned about the precipitous increase in property taxes, saying many are retired and that it’s natural for them to be upset to see their money eaten up more quickly.
Road maintenance is another hot-button issue she said, since that is the main service many taxpayers get for the taxes they pay, and she said although turnover in county employees appears to have improved, it is still a concern.
“It decreases continuity in services, as well as being costly to train new people to assume those jobs,” she said.
Ballard said she has a “can-do” attitude, problem-solving skills and fiscal responsibility.
“I would try to bring a little different perspective to the table,” she said. “We live in difficult times. People have come here in some cases to escape chaos or simply to retire in peace. I will work for all of the residents of Custer County.”
Former commissioner Travis Bies has thrown his hat back into the ring for a seat on the commission after serving as a commissioner from 12 years from 2006-18.
Bies, 53, has a family-owned ranch, H&T Bies Cattle Co., and said he believes the board needs more diversity and rural representation.
“I bring previous experience and knowledge of the county,” he said.
Bies said the biggest issues he sees facing the county are its development and the influx of people coming to the county.
“Using my past experience, I can make sure to control the influx of people and oversee that it gets controlled properly,” he said.
Bies, who is a current commissioner foro the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, said he will also strive to continue to keep road maintenance at the highest level in both the developed and rural areas.
Bies added he is proud of his past successes as a commissioner, which includes helping bring along the new courthouse, replacement of the Cheyenne River Bridge, east county highway shop and obtaining ownership of the Custer County Fairgrounds as well as the improvements made to it, all while maintaining a balanced budget.

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