Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Counties Take Action on Big Challenges

By Erik Johnston, Associate Legislative Director, National Association of Counties

Growing up in southwest Virginia I was oblivious to the investments made by my state, federal and local government that made life better for my family and community.  That all changed in high school, when my government teacher ran and won a seat as a supervisor representing the mostly rural and suburban western portion of Roanoke County.  I shadowed him and got a sense for the important role that local governments play in creating a quality of place through investments in education, infrastructure, job training, justice, public safety, health, social services, homeland security, environment, land use, community and economic development and numerous other roles.

Now I serve as the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Associate Legislative Director for Agriculture and Rural Affairs issues and work as staff liaison to NACo’s Rural Action Caucus. NACo’s bipartisan Rural Action Caucus serves as the voice of America’s rural counties before Congress and the Administration.  In my role, I’ve worked with county elected officials and staff from across the country who inspire me by their dedication to improving opportunity and quality of life in rural America. 

However, it is clear that these public servants and the rural counties they serve are facing challenges that have not been seen in a generation.  NACo’s Deputy Executive Director, Ed Ferguson recently wrote a commentary regarding the difficult landscape facing county governments in NACo’s County News Publication. 

In the commentary, Ferguson sums up the situation facing counties, “The continuing effects of the most severe and extensive downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and increasingly negative public attitudes toward government and government employees have made the job of governing and managing counties difficult. At the same time, these pressures have presented county officials with opportunities — opportunities for improved service-delivery models, opportunities for partnering and consolidating, and opportunities for new approaches toward revenue generation and spending.”  A recent NACo survey reinforces the current challenges and opportunities enumerated above. 

For many rural counties these challenges are not new, but have existed for decades.  ERS’s recently released poverty geography demonstrates the longstanding challenges facing many portions of rural America, including the 340 persistent poverty rural counties.  

So what can be done in the face of such a difficult landscape?

There are 3,068 counties and they all are seeking to meet these challenges in unique ways.  Many are implementing improved service-delivery models, partnering and consolidating, and finding opportunities for new approaches toward revenue generation and spending.

As a representative for rural counties in Washington, DC my members are asking me to focus on three main items at the federal policy level.  First, we are educating members of Congress and the Administration about the key federal investments and commitments that are critical to serving rural America and investing in its potential.  This includes maintaining funding for transportation and aviation infrastructure, rural development programs, rural health funding including Medicaid and historic federal commitments to counties with public lands through Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools. See link to NACo’s Rural Action Caucus Priorities.

Right now the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is making decisions that will impact rural counties for decades to come.  NACo is advocating for a balanced approach.  All expenditures should be considered, including defense, foreign aid and federal entitlement reform, along with other domestic spending. Additionally, revenue enhancements should not be left "off the table".  Although reducing discretionary domestic spending is part of the answer, it cannot -- and should not -- be the only sector that is considered.  See NACo’s recommendations to the committee.

Second, NACo’s rural members are advocating for increased flexibility to collaborate within their region to deliver services and promote economic development.  A major weakness of many federal rural economic development programs is that they are not structured to serve rural regions.  The NACo led Campaign for a Renewed Rural Development is working to reorient and improve USDA Rural Development programs through the Farm Bill process so that the agency has greater flexibility to encourage the local and regional partnerships that are currently encouraging innovation in rural regions across the country.  The Campaign’s Farm Bill principles were released in September.

Lastly, NACo’s Rural Action Caucus is strengthening its focus on advocating for relief from unfunded federal mandates.  Unfunded federal mandates burden rural taxpayers and counties with significant costs.  These mandates are especially burdensome in the current economic climate and can range from overly burdensome financial reporting requirements for small rural grants to proposed environmental regulations that threaten to force counties to obtain permits to clean county owned ditches.

Local government is often the forgotten form of government.  Like me, before my introduction to the world of counties, most rural citizens do not think about the critical role that their rural public servants play in creating a thriving place.  The current challenges facing rural local governments require more rural people to look under the hood and be part of the solution to the challenges facing their community.  As a rural advocate, I ask you to also communicate to your state and federal legislators the critical need for the federal government and states to maintain a strong partnership with rural counties, cities and towns.  Passing all problems down to the local level is not a solution for America, rural or urban.