A tiny Nebraska village that sells millions of cans of beer each year near a South Dakota Native reservation is consuming a sizable chunk of the surrounding county's budget, according to county officials.
Sheridan County Commissioner James Krotz raised the issue during a closed-door meeting earlier this year to address problems in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a ramshackle town on the border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
His comments were disclosed Friday in documents obtained through an open-records request by activists who want to shutter Whiteclay's four beer stores. A second county commissioner provided The Associated Press with budget documents showing that roughly one-third of the county's $5.2 million general fund was spent on law enforcement, jailing inmates, and prosecuting and defending cases. Krotz said in minutes of the closed-door meeting on Feb. 1 that most of the costs are from Whiteclay. He did not return a phone call on Friday seeking further comment.
The stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer last year despite having only a dozen residents, and critics blame them for widespread alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome within the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Local residents, officials and business owners have met at least half a dozen times at Gov. Pete Ricketts' urging to try to address panhandling and violence in the village, but they haven't reached an agreement.
Activists say the expense to local taxpayers is yet another reason to close the stores instead of adding law enforcement. John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who produced a documentary about Whiteclay, said the county should petition the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to revoke or refuse to renew the beer stores' liquor licenses.
"If Gov. Ricketts and his Whiteclay task force are sincere about addressing the fiscal impact and safety concerns caused by Whiteclay's four beer stores, then they should call for a voluntary moratorium on all beer sales in the unincorporated town for six months until comprehensive solutions can be proposed by the governor," Maisch said.
Maisch argues that alcohol regulators are violating state law by allowing too many beer stores in one place without adequate law enforcement or sanitation.
The 11-member task force includes Whiteclay business owners, elected officials, law enforcement and religious leaders. According to minutes Maisch obtained from the task force's February meeting, Ricketts urged members to try to keep their work confidential until they were ready to go public. He also implored them to trust and respect one another, and strive for "small victories" as they attempt to solve the problem.
Two of the town's beer store owners voiced concerns related to youths in Whiteclay, according to the minutes. Stuart Kozal, who owns the Jumping Eagle beer store, said the younger crowd was more aggressive and causing more problems on the streets. Doug Sanford of D&S Pioneer Service said he had noticed early-morning and underage drinkers.
In an interview, Sheridan County Attorney Jamie Simmons said her office doesn't track how many cases originate in Whiteclay, but the village requires a heavy law enforcement presence. Many of the cases are alcohol related, and more recently, she has seen an increase in methamphetamine use.
"We have a very high caseload per capita," she said.
Simmons, who sits on the task force, said she was optimistic that the group will eventually develop a plan to address some of the problems in the village.
Despite the costs, Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen said closing the beer stores wouldn't solve the problem and could lead to more drunken drivers in the county.
Andersen said the county stationed an officer in Whiteclay several decades ago, but the town's heavy drinkers simply waited until he went off-duty. The officer lived in Whiteclay for a brief time, but his house kept getting vandalized.
Andersen said he believes some panhandlers would use the town as a hangout even if the beer stores closed, because they've done so for decades and can still buy from bootleggers. And even though Whiteclay is small, he noted that the dry reservation has an estimated population of nearly 29,000.
"We don't have officers up there all the time, by any means," Andersen said. "But I would guess there's seldom a day when one of our officers isn't up there at least twice."