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‘Poor, rural’ San Juan makes list

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WASHINGTON — San Juan County, which has lingered in poverty for more than 40 years, has landed on a list of America's 535 "persistently poor rural counties."

The National Association of Counties developed the list and displayed a map of those counties at a press conference Tuesday, calling for more federal help for them and other rural areas.

"These counties have remained locked in poverty for over 40 years," said association president Javier Gonzales, a commissioner in Santa Fe County, N.M.

"It is often easy for us to turn a blind eye to these small poor sections of our country, but the fact remains that they are part of our country, and Congress should not disregard their needs because they do not have as much political clout."

Gonzales called on Congress to make it easier for rural counties to seek and obtain federal grants and called for more than double the federal assistance to rural areas over the next decade than is now proposed in the House's farm bill.

For example, the version passed recently by the House Agricultural Committee included $775 million in new money for rural development over the next 10 years. "This is not nearly enough," Gonzales said, and called for $2 billion instead.

The association also released a survey that said rural counties generally offer far fewer services than their metropolitan counterparts, and struggle more to raise funds.

That survey — produced with Ohio State and Colorado State universities — noted, for example, that declining local tax base is a key source of fiscal stress in 40 percent of rural counties, but only in 12 percent of metropolitan counties.

It said only 31 percent of rural counties have an economic development professional on staff, compared to 61 percent of metropolitan counties.

Also, only 29 percent of rural counties have a land-use planner on staff, compared to 73 percent of metro counties.

San Juan County, which includes part of the Navajo Indian Reservation, has both an economic development director and a planner, as well as a general plan.

But longtime County Commissioner Bill Redd said Wednesday that San Juan's problems are extensive, deeply rooted and not easily solved by an increase in spending under the farm bill. Additional government assistance only preserves the circumstances, he said.

"As long as you support people in a place with no income, you will always have them. So the idea of moving to the centers where income can be made is thwarted by that process," Redd said. "Secondarily, central planning and control from a distant (federal) government center is not the best economic paradigm for local areas."

Redd advocates more local control over available funds and resources. He said the county would be a good location for a nuclear generator "because we could use water out of the lake (Lake Powell)."

"We have the material source. All we need is a couple of businesses that upgrade it from the ore to the fuel rod, then take the used fuel rod and process it for more fuel and thereby keep cleaner air and lessen world temperatures. But our politics hasn't caught up with our science."

Gonzales noted that metropolitan counties have long been helped by the federal community development block grant program to improve facilities and services. He called for Congress to consolidate its many programs for rural areas into a block grant program that is easier to apply for and allows more flexibility.

"Consolidating some of these programs will help elected officials, such as Commissioner LaRen Provost in Wasatch County, Utah, who recently commented on the difficulties assessing available economic development assistance since the programs are spread out over six separate agencies," Gonzales said.

When it comes to all federal rural assistance programs, not just economic development, Gonzales said, "There are more than 800 different federal rural programs that have been implemented by more than 16 government agencies."


Contributing: Zack Van Eyck.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com