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Time to erase county lines

By Ken Root

The genesis for this column comes from action, in Iowa, to merge 99 county Extension offices into 20 regional offices and eliminate all county and area Extension director positions. A reduction in funding for the land-grant university was passed down to the outreach program and all directors have been given notice that they may apply for regional jobs, take retirement or be terminated. The reduction in staff is harsh, on the surface, but the action is as much an indicator of what has not been done, as it is what must be done, to keep rural areas viable.

A "county" is a revered political subdivision that dates back to the first settlement of this country. When Jefferson purchased Louisiana from France, the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains was surveyed into a grid system that eventually became states, counties and townships. The countryside filled up with settlers in the 1880s and the county was the most effective unit of government. It is said that a county was laid out to be of a size that a citizen wishing to take care of business could ride a horse from his or her home to the courthouse and home in one day.

We all know times have changed but the structure of counties has not. Social and religious cultures are often defined by counties. Some counties have lost population and some have gained, and that is the basis for the change that needs to come. We will eventually find it too expensive to use traditional means to serve the few who live in sparsely populated areas. That doesn't mean you can't live there with exceptional quality of life; it just means you will need to change the way you interact with government.

We already know that we can travel longer distances to do business. Wal-Mart has encouraged us to bypass the local town and cross county lines to save money and have a larger selection. Our next step is to replace face-to-face encounters by making more transactions over the Internet. Within the next few years, very few actions short of incarceration will require us to go to a government office. As broadband service comes to rural America, the computer will become the dominant means of communicating and doing business.

The downside is the people who are now employed by county government. Their jobs will be consolidated and offices will be closed. Beautiful courthouses with a hundred years of history will have to find other uses. There will be winners and losers in the dynamics of relocating to regional government. Yet, the need to erase old lines and draw new ones is clear. The districts of our elected representatives are already regionalized and they will be a major force in realigning the structure of rural districts. Power moves toward population and the best means for a rural area to gain equality is to consolidate into a larger geographic area. Fewer people doing more in a larger area is the way of the future.

If the process of consolidating is left up to existing county governments, nothing will happen. It's been tried several times--only to be rejected by those who have a vested interest in the current structure, supported by those who don't want to see anything change in their lifetime. It is not unlike our method of electing the President of the United States by utilizing the Electoral College rather than the popular vote. Those in power will have to vote themselves out for the change to be made. That won't happen. The change to consolidated government will be done by financial allocation. Less money will result in less people in less offices and more electronic communication to replace the old system.

I remember my parents talking about "mill levies" and township meetings and one-room schools. All had their place in the evolution of our country but all have given way to a faster pace and a more distant horizon. We cannot freeze ourselves in time and space because we won't pay the cost of doing so. The increasing debt of our federal government will make fewer and fewer dollars available to the far reaches of the countryside. Programs for rural economic development will be funded but the incentive will be to increase population--not to provide more money to fewer people.

Painful as it may be, consolidation of government services is inevitable. The time frame may be five years or 50 years, but it is better to plan now to enhance rural communities than to fight against change and have nothing left when that change comes.

Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.

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