Born and raised on a farm in Indiana, Karen Miller, president of the National Association of Counties (NACo), is determined to give rural communities a stronger voice in federal funding decisions and other matters that impact the viability of small-town America.
"Rural America really doesn't have a seat at the table when we're discussing issues at the federal level," said Miller, who began a one-year term as leader of NACo in July. "The plight of rural America is just not on people's horizon, and we're losing more and more communities. We're losing our culture, and we're losing our heritage."
Miller is one of three elected commissioners of Boone County, Mo. -- which has a population of 137,000, and a mix of rural and agricultural areas -- and the city of Columbia, home of the University of Missouri. During 11 years in office, she has tackled a range of infrastructure issues -- from improving roads and sewers, to connecting Boone County residents to the Internet.
Although Boone County deployed online services that allow citizens to search a variety of county databases and boosted its efficiency through technology, Miller worries that most rural communities are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. In an interview at NACo's Annual Conference and Exposition in Milwaukee, Miller discussed technology issues facing counties, focusing on the challenges of sustaining the health of rural communities.
What are your goals as NACo president?
To raise awareness, through the administration and Congress, of the basic services we need to maintain in rural America, so they can be viable communities and provide vital services that keep them viable communities.
I don't think we need to grow these small rural towns into cities -- that's not the goal. But we don't want to see ghost towns. We don't want to see community squares with nothing but a bunch of empty storefronts.
Describe some of the challenges facing rural counties.
Economic development is really a key. Broadband is exceptionally important in that effort. To get businesses to invest in a community, there have to be basic services. They need technology that allows them to do business from there and communicate with their corporate offices. So those are some efforts I'm working on.
We've been working for a long time on elevating rural issues within our organization and nationally, but I think we can do better. One of the ways I think we can do better is through partnerships. I'm developing a partnership with the [National Rural Electric Cooperative Association]. We have a common vision: If you can keep businesses in a community, they're going to sell more electricity. So it's a win-win.
There are so many good practices going on out there with counties and electric cooperatives, and other counties' officials don't even know that's an option. They don't even think about talking to their rural electric cooperatives.
During the last presidential election, rural America elected President Bush. So I think it's an opportunity with a presidential [election] year coming up that we elevate the platform of these issues. But we need to get a coalition of people. We can't, as NACo, do it by ourselves. We need to do it with partners. If we can speak with one voice, we can make a big difference in what will happen in the future.
What are the keys to maintaining rural viability?
My dad is a commissioner in Scotland County, Mo. It's a very, very rural county of 4,567 people. There may be one or two computers in the whole courthouse. As reasonably priced as computers are now, you can buy a computer and put it on a desk, but integration of those offices -- they don't have the professional technology skills