Help for Growing Counties

Nationwide, the fastest-growing level of government over the past two decades has been counties. As regional entities, they can be strong catalysts for change. But they need help.

Their scope is broadening, as more counties go beyond the basics of administering elections, building or maintaining roads, and keeping vital statistics. Now they're taking on programs that include consumer protection, planning and zoning, even water quality.

But a decline in federal and state aid presents a strong challenge for counties, especially rural ones and those next to more-urban counties. As they grow, they're under more pressure to build and maintain basic public services.

Managing growth requires careful planning. But in the past five years, 55.8 percent of rural counties have not adopted land-use planning, according to a just-released survey by the National Association of Counties, or NACo. For counties adjacent to big cities, the figure is 48.6 percent. By comparison, almost two-thirds of metropolitan counties have adopted land-use plans in the past five years.

Often, growth doesn't provide enough tax revenue for basic services. NACo offers three suggestions that would cost little for adjacent and rural counties who need help: (1) Streamline the application process for federal programs; (2) consolidate the more than 800 federal rural programs administered by more than 16 government agencies into a block-grant program similar to the Community Development Block Grant program, which has worked well for cities; and (3) increase federal investment in rural infrastructure needs.

The House Agriculture Committee will soon consider a farm bill that earmarks $775 million for rural development over the next 10 years. That's far short of the $2 billion NACo recommends. Congress would do well to keep this latest survey in mind.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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