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Mercer Peeved at Rutland; Also Not Fond of Capitalism

Full disclosure: the Rutland School District has been a Madville Times sponsor for over two years. I try not to let sponsors' money affect my editorial choices, but I acknowledge that some readers may interpret this text differently. Apply what grains of salt you feel necessary.

Journalist Bob Mercer makes clear his distaste for Rutland, South Dakota. Oddly, he expresses this distaste in a "buy local" paean that rambles into a sloppy mishmash of quasi-capitalist socialism that suggests he doesn't really believe in small towns or the free market.

We'll get to Mercer's Rutland-pounding in a moment. First, socialism:

Mercer's latest political column exhorts us all to shop locally. He argues primarily from a socialist perspective: we should buy from our local merchants not because it is the most economically efficient choice, not because local goods and services provide the best value for our dollars, but because your money will help local businesses pay their taxes and support public services. Mercer is absolutely right that shopping locally supports the local tax base... but can free-market purists base their actions on that argument?

Against the evils of Internet commerce, Mercer argues we should have our local merchants order things for us. Again, Mercer is right: local merchants may not have everything we want in stock, but they can get it for us fast, thanks to the Internet and overnight delivery. But so can I. From a free-market perspective, why would I engage the unnecessary services of a middleman when I can more cost-effectively obtain goods and services directly?

Mercer can't sustain his argument for local shopping unless he acknowledges that the free market cannot establish our primary values. Mercer's argument rests on the assumption that the social welfare is more important than individual liberty and market efficiency.

Perhaps Mercer's economic philosophy gets all tangled up because he's not really trying to express an economic philosophy. He's just setting up a broadside of the nefarious Rutland School District. He groans that "Rutland depends on the rest of us more than its local taxpayers to pay for its school system." He notes that under the current school funding formula, Rutland levies $298,000 in local property taxes for education while receiving $448,000 in state aid to keep its school open. Mercer contends that Rutland further drains our collective coffers by encouraging people to shop through a special online portal that donates a portion of online purchases to Rutland School District.

Mercer notes that Rutland also sends a bus to Madison to spirit away the children of that fair community, just to get more dollars from the state (just like South Dakota puts more Indian kids in foster care to get more federal grants, right, Bob?). Never mind that no one has reported armed guards forcing Madison kids onto the Rutland bus. Those Rutland scum are offering students in neighboring districts choices and opportunities, and Bob Mercer won't stand for it!

Mercer patches everything together to issue this stinging indictment:

Rutland is encouraging people to shop over the Internet. Madison's community leaders work every business day to encourage people to shop in Madison [ironic link mine; Bob Mercer, "A Better Way Than More Tax to Help Ensure a Place's Future," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2011.11.28].

That's how Mercer's ramble ties together. He adopts the mantle of buy-local advocacy mostly just to show what bastards folks in the Rutland School District are.

Now let's distill some grains of truth from Mercer's complaint. Rutland's leaders encourage local shopping as well. Alas, Rutland has all of two places to buy anything: Black Studios and the school-operated Rambler Stop. If you need something other than wedding photos or gas and chips, you need to shop elsewhere. To get a piece of the commerce pie, Rutland has to reach for a slice of online sales through things like the donation program in which it participates.

Perhaps there is an argument that if a town is too small to support its own retail sector, it's too small to be a viable community. Maybe that's Bob Mercer's real argument: that some towns are too small for the state to support. That's the reasoning behind every push for school consolidation South Dakota has seen: maintaining little country schools in every rural township uses tax dollars far too inefficiently. The state must stretch its limited dollars to provide the best educational value it can to as many students as possible.

If Mercer wants to argue that some schools and some towns are too small to survive, he should say so. He may be right. Maybe we need to eliminate more of the school "middlemen" in small towns and consolidate education in larger education clearinghouses. Perhaps we can make education even more efficient by replacing more brick-and-mortar schools with online courses.

But if we decide as a state that certain small towns aren't worth our while, we don't get to soothe our consciences by vilifying those smallest-town boosters. They're just trying to survive, and it's hard to fault a community for that.


  1. Jim 2011.11.29

    "Again, Mercer is right: local merchants may not have everything we want in stock, but they can get it for us fast, thanks to the Internet and overnight delivery. But so can I. From a free-market perspective, why would I engage the unnecessary services of a middleman when I can more cost-effectively obtain goods and services directly?"

    Is that only from a free-market perspective, or is that also your personal shopping practice? I am curious because you advocate main street, main street, main street, but suggest shopping online to satiate your needs if the small town mom & pop store does not stock the exact item you want.
    Dammit Cory, we are not mind readers. Please decide which method of shopping you endorse.

  2. Erin 2011.11.29

    Actually, local merchants CAN’T get everything I want or need. For instance, there is no place for me (a thirty-something woman) to buy clothes in Madison. Well, I can buy clothes at Lewis or Pamida, but there’s no way I can get A) the clothing styles I want, B) clothes that will properly fit me, C) clothes that are durable, or D) dress clothes by shopping at these two stores. I am left with either shopping online or in another town. I cannot ask Pamida or Lewis to order the clothes I want/need. It’s simply not possible--that’s not their way of doing business.

    Here in Spearfish, in addition to several good local clothing retailers downtown, there are two consignment shops (thank goodness, because the local retailers are too expensive for our current budget). These two consignment shops carry name-brand clothing in great shape at reasonable prices. They are fun places to shop, because they have good selections, the staff is friendly, and the owners have taken care to design and decorate them nicely. One is already located downtown and the other is about to expand and relocate to a beautiful historic downtown storefront. I have bought more clothes for myself at these two stores in the last three months than I did in the last five years in Madison.

    Like Cory, I believe pretty strongly in Main Street. But that requires that a community and retailers care about Main Street. I’m also not going to spend money on a product I don’t want just because a local retailer has an inferior version of what I want. I also, frankly, don’t have the time to run around to a several different stores and ask if they can order what I want. Internet sales are here to stay, and if local retailers don’t have what I want or need, I feel not one ounce of guilt for ordering online or shopping in another town.

  3. carl fahrenwald 2011.11.29

    Why? Why? Where is this coming from? I just don't get the vendetta and mean spiritedness. I discovered Mr. Mercer's anti-Rutland diatribe after leaving a staff meeting with our teachers yesterday afternoon. Our teachers agonize over not being able to do enough for students to give them all that they need to be more successful. Our teachers pour their hearts and souls out for students (whether open enrolled or not) and for this we are being taken to task?? Pathetic, ridiculous or just plain dumb- it's all three I'm afraid. Here was my response to Mr. Mercer:
    "you couldn't have possibly come up with a more negative "spin" on the Rutland School's online shopping link. Please access the link again as I've added some clarification to address your "concerns":

    Much more disturbing than this though is your charge that Rutland students cost more to "others". Where are you getting the state aid vs. local effort figures from? I cannot verify them unless you just somehow "forgot" to factor in Rutland's $220,000 tax opt out which is 100 % local effort.

    According to the latest district profile available on the DOE website (2009-10 school year):

    Rutland's local effort was $567, 582. (you reported "about $298,000)
    Rutland's total state aid was $ 437,818 (you reported "about $448,000)

    So Rutland does pay the majority of it's own bill in spite of having much higher per pupil costs. This is the exact opposite of what you are "reporting". Then there is the gratuitous charge that we are running a bus into madison in order to "get more state aid, at Madison's loss, under SD open enrollment law".

    Mr. Mercer, aren't you forgetting that the reason a bus is needed is that families are choosing to open enroll? Let's not patronize, shame or ignore the choices of these families by insinuating that they are somehow helpless pawns of Rutland's scheme to get more state aid. Let's quit spinning the open enrollment as a win-lose turf warfare battle between neighboring districts. Either we have open enrollment or we don't, but we can't sort of have open enrollment as an option only for those comfortably middle class folks with an extra suburban and flexible work hours. Students need to be allowed the safest, most reliable transportation to/from school no matter which public school they choose to attend.

    Competition is good for public schools. Just as with any other product or service, competition drives innovation, improvements, and better customer service. If you can't agree with this then that's OK, but please recheck your figures on the local effort vs. state aid and also give me your source for these figures. The source I quoted gives a vastly different picture.

    Once you adjust your figures, I would ask that you print a retraction along with the correct figures.

    thank you for your attention to this matter."

  4. Jim 2011.11.29

    Your personal scenario is what I have tried to explain to Cory about Madison. Madison is simply A) too small to have stores that could stock everything a person would want, B) too close to Sioux Falls and Brookings to prevent shoppers from traveling to do their shopping, C) fast becoming a bedroom community, D) failing to cater to college students and/or younger kids that have no place to go for entertainment.
    Cory made it sound like his purchases were internet based, which goes against his "shop local" mantra. Adding store fronts will do very little if the merchant does not offer something desirable, or needed.

  5. Charlie Johnson 2011.11.29

    This is only a hunch, but what does the Sioux Falls District get in state aid for the 20,000 plus students they have versus what the residents of SF school district pay in school taxes? Cann anyone help me out with the numbers. As for Mercer--shame on him.

  6. carl fahrenwald 2011.11.29

    Charlie- thank you for your interest as a local citizen (taxpayer). This is starting to feel like the end of a Scooby-Doo episode..... "Yeah, and we would have gotten away with it too (bullying Rutland) if it weren't for you meddlin' concerned citizens"! Here is the link to the DOE site where all of the district profiles are at. These 2 page profiles published every year are a great summary of everything from enrollment to taxation, state aid, and everything in between. You have to scroll down a ways to see the links for the 2009-10 district profiles. They have the 2010-11 profiles there as well but these links are not active yet:

  7. John Hess 2011.11.29

    Spearfish is only 45 minutes from Rapid, yet they have a downtown. What's the difference Jim? People would buy more in Madison if they could, and if they weren't already making a trip there, to what? Buy groceries. More then golfers need a fancy club house, we need a full service grocery. People are telling me we have a homeless population in Madison. Is that true? Maybe we need to accommodate them before giving a charitable loan to the golfing crowd.

  8. Faith Handegard 2011.11.29

    I work in Rutland for the school system but have recently moved to Madison. Amazingly this is okay with my employers! I do not have a "grudge" against Madison because of some of it's outspoken residents. I support the community I live in by purchasing groceries, clothing, gas, pharmaceuticals. I support the community center with a membership, I support local utilities and pay my taxes here. I have shopped and supported numerous businesses since I have lived here but I also have to shop in Brookings for a larger and less costly grocer. Am I supporting the town I reside in..yes. Am I supporting the town my children go to for school...yes. Can't I do both? Sure...why not...I'm not going to cut my nose off to spite my face. Mr. Mercer if you find yourself in Rutland with an empty gas tank I hope you will not be so stubborn as to try to make it home as opposed to buying gas from our Rambler Stop. But if you find yourself trying to make it home on fumes then all I can say is ...I feel sorry for you. What an oppressive life you must live..

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.11.29

    Jim, don't cuss me out. As Erin notes, I prefer and advocate Main Street shopping. But I also will acknowledge that doing so may require more than a pure free-market perspective. I can resolve that difference for myself; I want to know how Mercer resolves it.

    Jim, it sounds to me as if you are rejecting Mercer's argument to buy local and acknowledging that market forces simply make retail everywhere impossible. If a town is too small or poorly situated to support its own retail sector, then we should entertain the next logical question: is that town sustainable as a community? Can it support a school, a police department, or a culture sufficiently vibrant and healthy to justify raising kids there and funding a school with state tax dollars?

  10. Bill Fleming 2011.11.29

    Good point, Cory. If there's gonna be a town, there's gotta be a there there. Something besides memories of the way it was once.

  11. Chris 2011.11.29

    As so far as basing a downtown business strategy around Dakota State, there's simply not enough of a strong student base, as many of the students commute to Madison for classes, and the college itself is not considered a 'weekend' college, the students who do reside on campus seem to head home each weekend, and thus buy whatever they need in their respective communities. (expanding food service options on campus and college services on the weekend may begin to address the shortcomings of local campus life)

    Further, looking at and studying other small college-based communities, which Madison is becoming more each year as Dakota State increases enrollment (but much of that growth appears to be online students and the University Center in Sioux Falls), might prove to be a successful strategy for Madison in the coming years, and one for our local economic development agency.

  12. Charlie Johnson 2011.11.29

    I don't necessarily view my role as a defender of the Rutland School District. I farm and live at the other end of Lake County, 11 miles SW of madison. I did review the school information that Carl F. linked to in the state dept. of education website. What I found was interesting. The property owners in Rutland pay a general education levy of 4.4 mills versus the state requirement of 2.5 mills(this because of a local op-out of about $220,000) In rough percentages, Rutland is providing about 55% of their revenue through local effort. In madison and most other school districts that percentage appears to be about 52%. In the end, Rutland property tax payers are more than matching local effort dollar for dollar for every state dollar they may get through open enrollment. Their teachers are earning on average about $26,000 versus $39,000 in madison. Their capital outlay levy is 1.5 mills versus the maximum 3.0 mills in many other districts. Presently they are not in debt for any bond redemption-thus no bond levy. It appears the school district is attempting to provide a quality small town school atmosphere through their willingness to sacrifice. Their teachers take on less pay, their property owners pay extra taxes, and they keep their capital outlay low and debt non-existent. It 's time for Bob Mercer and other skeptics to get over the open enrollment insecurity. Let open enrollment work as it should-an option for each student, each family, as they strive for what is best.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.11.29

    Faith, thanks for the local perspective! You show how we live in an interconnected state. Mercer's effort to play Madison against Rutland doesn't make sense, given how the towns depend on each other for workers and shoppers... and given how sales tax doesn't support any specific school district.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.11.29

    Good work on the numbers, Charlie and Carl! Pointing out that Rutland pays a larger share of its own school costs than Madison deflates a big portion of Mercer's attack.

    Open enrollment is just one more part of that theme of interconnectedness that Faith got me thinking of. We can and should educate our students as a statewide community. South Dakota does not lose when a student moves from Madison to Rutland or from Chester to Sioux Falls.

  15. Richard Wilson 2011.11.29

    One thing. If we had people in Pierre who would have the courage to fund this state's educational systems off of the bottom of virtually every category, instead of having huge tax breaks for the wealthy and big business, our schools would not have to be fundraisers, but full time EDUCATORS.

  16. Suzanne Jaton 2011.11.29

    We read articles all the time about how schools need to find ways to support themselves and lessen the burden we put on the state. When they attempt to do that, they are chastised for that as well. I don't understand how linking through the school to buy online is any different from the other methods schools use to fund raise. Every year I am offered the chance to buy fruit from the FFA, which means I buy less at the local store. The band sells greens and trip to the floral shop. The cheerleaders sell cookie bakery stop needed. Butterbraids, candles, magazines and other items all in attempt to raise funds and have the students participate in raising the funds for their uniforms or band trips or after prom events. These have been traditional and accepted forms of fund raising, and not seen as particularly threatening to any local businesses, so I fail to see how buying something online is really any different. I buy many things locally, large items like furniture, vehicles and farm machinery. I buy groceries, household items, and occasionally fast food locally as well. If I can't find an item, I shop online...oddly enough no one in Madison or Brookings carries a book of Banjo music but I found it online. The people of the Rutland community are willing to support their school and that isn't a thing they should or will feel ashamed to do.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.11.29

    Right on, Richard. South Dakota's economy grew 4.28% in 2010. South Dakota that means South Dakota generated $1.6 billion more in wealth in 2010 than it did the previous year. If the people in Pierre had the kind of courage you wish for, they'd have found a way to access that wealth to fund education.

  18. Erika 2011.11.30

    As this topic is discussed, where is Mr. Mercer? I wonder what the man has to say now... He has the nerve to write an article about a town over 70 miles away that he's never been in. Was he hoping we Rutland-ites wouldn't notice or defend ourselves? What do you have to say for yourself now, Mr. Mercer?

  19. Jim 2011.11.30

    I did not cuss you. I tried to infuse a little humor by copying you on another post of yours about hiring a hotel person to help manage a hospital where you used the famous Star Trek phrase of Dr. McCoy (dammit, Jim, I'm not a.......). Guess you just expect everything to be against you that you failed to see the attempt at humor.

    I do buy local when possible. I buy online when I need to. I have told you this before so it should not be a surprise. I have also said Madison's main street is a joke. You, and others, think that if a few brave souls with some money to spare open a shop on main street all the problems will vanish. I am saying there is very little chance of that happening. Don't ask me for stats, trends, polls, etc, because I have nothing to back me up. I just know that I have lived in Madison for the better part of 40 years and have seen new stores come and go, established stores pull up roots, or fail all together. The list of products and services that have been provided in Madison is endless. Shopping trends have changed over the past few decades, and we all have become tighter with our money and, like you said, we no longer are willing to buy something inferior or slightly different to what we really want, and the internet, the very vessel you use to reach the tens of Madville Times readers (humor Cory), has done that. The whole world is our market now.

    John, all I am saying about Sioux Falls & Brookings being so close is that, IMHO, folks will travel there for their shopping, and entertainment, needs. I am curious what services are missing at Sunshine that you feel we need? Better prices and selection are what I want. I am not sure what else Dan can do for me that I feel I am missing out on as far as services go.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.01

    Jim, you waste too much time talking about me instead of about the real issues. I agree with you that Madison's retail sector is sorely uncompetitive. I agree with your assessment, based on your 40 years of experience, that Madison retail lacks choice, value, and staying power. I agree with you that the Internet has provided people with opportunities to access much wider markets.

    That said, I believe there are steps Madison can take to boost Main Street retail. Spearfish can support a variety of downtown retail, as well as cultural events. Spearfish is bigger, but Spearfish also faces competitive pressures from surrounding communities and the Internet just like Madison does. Just because Madison retail is failing doesn't mean Madison retail is destined to fail. And just because I say it isn't destined to fail doesn't mean you and other apologists for the LAIC's inattention to retail are obliged to say that it is.

  21. Jim 2011.12.01

    Don't flatter yourself. I have found that unless I attempt to fully clarify my posts you will twist them to your desire.
    Case in point: calling me an apologist for the LAIC.

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.01

    There is a difference between providing more "clarity" on the issue and talking about me instead of the issue. Again, get over me.

    I do not twist: you argue that retail in Madison is hopeless. You thus offer an excuse for the LAIC's ignoring retail development.

  23. Michael Black 2011.12.02

    What would the LAIC have to do to make you happy with their efforts Cory?

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.02

    Michael, I think I've made that abundantly clear. Develop a comprehensive development strategy that includes downtown revitalization and the arts. Be open, transparent, and accountable. Produce quantifiable results. Practice genuine public participation. The LAIC good old boys' club does none of that.

  25. Michael Black 2011.12.02

    Would you be happier if it went away entirely?

  26. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.12.02

    We might be better off with no LAIC than with an LAIC that hoards power and drains local capital with projects that produce no results and an exec who takes his six-figure salary home to Brookings every night. But I would be happiest with an economic development organization that produces results, not propaganda.

  27. Jim 2011.12.02

    Get over yourself. I did talk about the issue. I gave my opinion. Because of my opinion, you decided to twist it to your liking and say I am offering excuses for the LAIC. Far from the truth, but you are your own best fan and you will do with this as you please.
    So, because my opinion is not what you want to hear it is wrong, or pro-LAIC? Please give me some credit. I don't need stats, graphs, pie charts, or incomprehensable data to tell me downtown Madison is faltering. I also don't need to look very far to see that the LAIC is faltering. Seriously though, is it solely the fault of the LAIC that mainstreet is not what you want? All you have come up with is fire Duane, give Cory control of all vacant businesses, let him do what will certainly work and revitalize Madison, and all will be fine. I wish it was that easy.

    Enough about me. Let's get back to you. Enjoy the time in Pierre. Go get a steak at Mad Mary's or the Cattleman's, and enjoy yourself. I will be in Madison, frequenting businesses that are still around, and doing what I can to help my kids have a nice weekend.

  28. Bob Mercer 2011.12.02

    Gee, I missed most of the party. Actually, Carl F. isn't portraying the actual numbers used for calculating state aid. The numbers in the original column are accurate. Carl is mixing in opt-out money. There are several levies such as opt-outs, retirement, et cetera, that are optional and have no bearing on state aid. He's on the wrong DOE page.

  29. carl fahrenwald 2011.12.02

    Mr. Mercer is right that state aid calculations do not include opt out money. However, his original accusation was "... that Rutland depends on the rest of us more than its local taxpayers to pay for its school system". If we are comparing total state vs. local dollars necessary to fund our school then the $220,000 opt out has to count. State aid is meant to fund students, not schools. There is nothing "unfair" about state aid dollars following students to a different school. This is how the system is supposed to work. Yes, the Rutland School has a high percentage of open-enrolled students and without these students we would not meet the 100 student minimum required by state law. This fact though is a point of pride for us rather than being something shameful as Mr. Mercer portrays it. We believe that we offer a uniquely valuable and important educational environment at Rutland and the choices of a growing number of area families through the open enrollment process seems to confirm this. Again, I simply don't understand why Mr. Mercer (or anyone else) would go out of their way to throw a wet blanket on our public school of choice.

  30. Terry 2011.12.05

    I agree with Bob that we should support local business, but I also understand that times are changing and this will become harder and harder to do. As far as Rutland School, I'm sure they are the pioneers in this type of fund raising??? May I also add: Who Cares!! I am not a fan of raising state sales taxes for schools and medicare, but only because I don't trust the politicians in Pierre will use the money as intended. We really need to look at fixing education funding in this state, as it is my opinion there are too many stupid people in the world already.

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