Whether it's a new water system for a community or an addition to a hospital, USDA's Rural Development division has played an active role in rural communities in Indiana recently. That's thanks in part to leadership provided by Indiana Rural Development director Bob White. A savvy government leader, White also has a passion for rural Indiana that leads him to fight as hard as possible for funds for rural areas.
White may soon have a bigger pot of federal funds to fight for. At least that's the message his 'boss,' USDA Undersecretary Tom Dorr, delivered while in Indiana last week. Dorr reviewed the Bush Administration's farm bill proposals, just a few days after they were released to the public. While they're just proposals and were delivered to a Democrat-controlled Congress, Dorr believes that they're innovative, and will spur creative debate as Congress works toward a 2007 Farm Bill. The Iowa farmer-turned government leader expects that there will be a Farm Bill before 2007 expires.
Title VI in the Bush farm bill proposals concerns rural development. Not all people who spoke at the 52 listening sessions conducted by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner, an Indiana native, and Dorr himself, were farmers. Several spoke about the critical role played by funds supplied to rural communities for USDA. Without this help, many people speaking at the hearings said, important projects that improve quality of life for rural residents might go undone.
Apparently Johanns and his staff were listening. Their proposals would consolidate rural development programs to make them more efficient, i.e. eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic waste and red tape. They would also provide $1.6 billion in loans to complete rehabilitation of all 1,283 certified Rural Critical Access Hospitals in the country.
"That is a big deal in this title of the farm bill proposal," Dorr assures. Apparently Secretary Johanns has relatives who have unfortunately been on the short end of adequate care because facilities were under funded, Dorr noted.
"The Secretary is very passionate about this one," Dorr assures.
The proposal also recognizes that there is still a backlog of rural infrastructure projects that small rural communities would like to complete. The Bush proposal suggests providing an additional $500 million to reduce this backlog. These projects include water and waste disposal project loans and grants, emergency water assistance grants, loan and grant programs for other community facilities and grants for distance learning and telemedicine.
A quirk in Rural Development law prohibits USDA's Rural Development agency from assisting counties with more than a specified population, even though needs could exist in those counties. For example, Indiana Rural Development Director White says he essentially can't provide help to the doughnut counties surrounding Indianapolis.
In an even quirkier ruling, Benton County, west of Tippecanoe County in northwest Indiana, is classified as a 'metropolitan' county. Anyone who's traveled the area knows it's one of the most desolate, rural, farm-driven counties in Indiana. It's 'metropolises' include Oxford, Boswell, Fowler, Montmorenci and Otterbein.
While neither White nor Dorr commented on these issues, rural residents in such counties will be hoping consolidating and making service more efficient could mean sorting out such inaccuracies.