Senate bill would provide $5.8 million to help Ellsworth AFB community prepare for arrival of B-21 Raider

Ellsworth Air Force Base (MSGT. JOSE LOPEZ, JR./U.S. Air Force)

A bill that provides $5.8 million for infrastructure improvements in Box Elder will be considered Monday by the Joint Committee of Appropriations after it was deferred Wednesday by a 10-8 vote.

Sen. Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City, introduced Senate Bill 151, which provides funds to help the community support Ellsworth Air Force Base as it prepares for the arrival of the B-21 Raider, a bomber that is now under development.

“Box Elder has invested an incredible amount of money into the community to support the community and the base, but they’ve exhausted their resources,” Castleberry said Friday. “The base is a blessing but also a burden.”

SB151 is separate from House Bill 1019, which would appropriate $3.2 million from the general fund to the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority to help construct the Liberty Center Wellness Facility. The House Bill was deferred to the 41st legislative day by a 7-2 vote on Tuesday.

Reps. Tina Mulally and Taffy Howard of Rapid City voted to not defer it to the 41st day. Reps. Linda Duba, Steven Haugaard, Liz May, Chris Karr, Randy Gross, John Mills and Mary Fitzgerald opposed the measure.

Box Elder Mayor Larry Larson said the Air Force has told the city many times that quality of life is one of the highest considerations to keep missions in place and that includes having housing nearby.

“One thing we have a problem with is we can’t go farther to the east without the main sewer line coming east and that’s a $1.8 million project,” Larson said.

Castleberry said the base is the largest employer for the community, but the city doesn’t receive property or sales tax from it.

Nicole Schneider, city administrator and chief financial officer, said the city could leverage the money to get federal grants to help with the main arterial roads, economic development along the Interstate 90 corridor and allow the Douglas School District to expand.

Larson said the city found out about three months ago that the Air Force is expediting its timeline by three years and needs to make preparations now. During the hearing on Wednesday, a proponent of the bill said it would allow planning to begin in 2021 and construction to begin in 2022 rather than 2023.

Castleberry said Box Elder could see an additional 7,000 residents to the around 10,000 who live there now in a matter of three to five years. That includes about 1,500 airmen and 5,500 family members.

Larson said about 70% of soldiers live off base, but like to be close to it.

“The military doesn’t want them spread out over the Black Hills,” he said. “They don’t want them to drive from Rapid City or even Black Hawk or the Piedmont area. That’s just not a good thing for them.”

Jimmy Dettman, public relations and events coordinator with the city, said Box Elder was told the Air Force has no intention of building any housing on base and that surrounding communities should make sure area housing is available.

During the hearing Wednesday, a representative from the South Dakota Bureau of Finance and Management spoke in opposition of the bill, saying it would set a precedent for other communities to seek state funds to help with infrastructure.

“Any time we have a community that is supporting a military installation because we are the only city in the state that is doing that… we should provide funding, especially the extra funding we have,” Castleberry said Friday. “It makes sense to support the military and the community.”

Scott Landguth, executive director of the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority, said during the hearing that a “strong Box Elder is good for Ellsworth Air Force Base,” and the impacts of growth and expansion are significant for the area.

Pennington County Commission chairman Gary Drewes, Meade County Commission chairman Ted Seaman, and Box Elder’s public works director, city engineer and financial advisor all spoke in favor of the bill.

Larson, Schneider, Dettman and Castleberry ask Box Elder residents and members of the surrounding community to contact their representatives to discuss the importance of the bill.

The Joint Committee on Appropriations will meet at 7 a.m. Monday. The bill is the third item on the agenda.


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