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 to do that.
We take it for granted in Boone County, and it is critically important to our day-to-day life. If our server goes down or we can't get to our e-mail, we think the world has stopped. But there are counties out there across America that don't even operate in the same realm.
I bought my dad a computer for home, so he could have Internet access and we could communicate -- but it's a long distance phone call. He sold the computer, and I don't blame him. He can't afford to pay the long distance bill. We need to give access to everyone in America. Not just those who live in larger communities. That's a real problem.
NACo developed a partnership to bring satellite broadband to rural courthouses, so they can then get people connected -- and it's at a very reasonable price. That's the kind of thing we're doing internally to try to bring this forward. We also need Congress to recognize that money needs to be put into these systems to have the private sector want to do this kind of investment in rural America.
What happens to the communities that can't keep up?
The consequences are that citizens don't have the opportunity for online services -- the ability to pay a bill from home or see the agenda for county meetings. More and more, people want to do government business from their home and on their computer.
We're leaving out whole segments of this country because they don't have that capability. It's like when we created the Universal Service Fund to support rural telephone service. I think that's where we have to go to get Internet access throughout the country, and I think it's that vital of a service.
How do you make Congress recognize that this is so vitally important? You do that through showing them the interdependency of rural America and urban America.
So the digital divide hasn't disappeared?
No it hasn't, and part of solving it is giving county officials knowledge of how to get their community wired and connected. Leaders have to take some responsibility. But there has to be some help at the federal level to get them started, I believe.
We work through our Rural Action Caucus and through public-private partnerships with corporate sponsors to find ways to elevate that message and that information, so county officials have more tools to know how to do some of these things.
When rural communities see what some larger counties are doing, they think it's out of their reach, and it really is not. You might have to do it in a different way to get some of the same results. It might not be a Cadillac, but you can sure have a Ford if you try.
Do rural counties need to take a different approach to technology?
I think they definitely will approach it differently. In Missouri, for example, every county clerk in the state has an Internet connection to the secretary of state. That may be the only computer in some courthouses when you get those very poor, rural counties.
Not every county is that lucky to have the state pay for one computer link to the statehouse. Missouri did it so election information immediately flows to the secretary of state so when you hold statewide elections, you know who got elected that night.
The state Legislature felt that was pretty important. They could recognize the value. They wanted to know if they were re-elected. So those are the kinds of things we need to do -- find examples where there is value to the Congress and value to the administration.
Where will rural counties find the money for technology?
I think a lot of times technology can slow the need for more employees. So sometimes you don't need to replace employees lost through attrition when [you] use the technology tools available.
A good example is how we use imaging technology in our County Assessor's Office for all personal property declarations. We eliminated two positions that worked year-round alphabetizing these personal property declarations.
Our county's growing, but we're not adding employees. We've invested in technology because we recognize the larger cost is investing in people. Yes, you have to upgrade and things change so fast that you sometimes think, 'I just bought that system.' But you can do a cost/benefit analysis and see right away technology is the better way to go.
Also, citizens are requiring it. My community is a college town, so we have a very educated population. They're expecting more and more services all the time.
Do elected county leaders view technology as fundamental to government operations?
Absolutely. It's a critical part of the strategic plan for Boone County. Moving to imaging, allowing people to search online for copies of documents at the County Recorder's Office -- we've been doing that for about two years now. But that's because we have very aggressive elected officials.
They're active, and they know how to reach out and solve the problems. That's why I said sometimes you have to take on the responsibility of reaching out on your own. But it's hard for a rural county to invest the money to send someone to a meeting when they can't even buy a computer to put on their desk.
How important is grant funding to counties?
I think that is so critical. One of my goals has been to find a program we could provide as a member service to rural communities that would allow them to search for grants, and have some kind of guidelines about how to apply for grants -- a template of information.
Then we found that the federal government was creating a Web site that all 35 of its granting agencies will feed information into. All of their stuff has to be in one place, online by October -- and that doesn't cost anything.
We're working with them. I testified before Congress about this, because they needed to recognize that they can't require people to apply for the grants online. If it's a long distance phone call to access the Internet, you need to download the document, fill it out and upload it. Otherwise, you're putting an undue burden on those people in rural America.
These were things they hadn't even thought about -- most people don't. If you live in town, you don't even consider it. But it is a real problem. We would be taking away the opportunity for rural communities to even access funds.
If you had to choose one accomplishment for the next year, what would it be?
I want to get a rural agenda in the presidential campaign platform. If you can get candidates to identify with rural issues when they're campaigning and say these are the things we believe rural America needs, it's pretty hard for them not to support rural initiatives if they become elected.
But the only way that can happen is through a coalition of rural organizations. It's not just NACo wanting this. It's all sectors of rural America recognizing that these things need to be protected or improved or changed for [rural America] to stay viable.