Town government ... when there's not much town to govern

The Great Plains frontier is faced with shrinking populations and mounting poverty, making government services difficult to deliver. To cope, it's trying everything from virtual schools to mobile 'hospitals.'

he county sheriff doubles as unofficial police chief for Hettinger and Reeder, N.D. The county recorder spends most of her time clerking for the district court. Then there's Betty Svihovec. She's city auditor, county auditor, city treasurer, superintendent of schools, and something called the county risk manager.

If all this sounds like rural cronyism, think again. This is Adams County's bid for survival.

With a dwindling population and tax base, this expanse of rolling farmland and brick storefronts is straining to maintain services for 2,600 residents spread over nearly 1,000 square miles. Never mind that median household income falls $600 below that of the poorest state in the Union. Or that the typical resident here has edged a decade closer to retirement than the national norm.

Somehow, the innovators of Adams - and other Great Plains counties like it - are finding ways to keep things running. That's one of the ironies of the reemergence of America's frontier (counties with fewer than six people per square mile). The new pioneers aren't those who move; they're the ones who stay and try something different.

Unfortunately, even the innovators are caught in the region's vicious demographic cycle. Two-thirds of the Plains' frontier is losing population.

As jobs dwindle, young people flee to the cities. Fewer young families means fewer children, which leads to a smaller pool of families in the next generation. As its tax base shrinks, the frontier's remaining residents are edging toward the stage in life where they're likely to demand more services. Already, a third of the region's households receive Social Security. At some point, economists and demographers say, the system simply breaks down.

"It's the phenomenon of a slowly sinking middle," says Lester Thurow, a native of Montana and now professor of economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. By the time he retires, he predicts, "this will be the poorest part of America."

Can the region avoid that fate? Some frontier communities are experimenting vigorously - particularly in the public sector - to neutralize the effects of depopulation and wider open spaces. No one knows if they'll succeed in the long run.

On a snowy morning at the high school here in Hettinger, Bonnie Smith greets her English composition class in 21st-century fashion: by interactive TV. Although three students are sitting in her classroom, another dozen follow the proceedings from Scranton, 30 miles away, or Bowman, 40 miles away. Fax machines, microphones, and banks of monitors and cameras keep all three classrooms connected.

Mrs. Smith and the students manipulate the technology with ease. "I love this camera," Smith says of an overhead lens that broadcasts to the students what she writes on a pad. With it, she goes over a student's paper with the entire class - something that would be much harder in a conventional classroom.

The two-year-old system represents the school's latest step in a decade of experimenting with long-distance learning. It has allowed the school to continue offering German, entrepreneurship, even art - often crossing county lines and jurisdictions to do so.

"It's more fun" than a conventional class, says senior Leigh Johnson. "You see [these same] people sitting at basketball games" in the away bleachers.

But students and teachers agree the system doesn't quite live up to the live interaction of a traditional classroom. And, so far, the technology works best for highly motivated students, Smith adds.

Jim Long, chief executive of West River Health Services, knows all about crossing county and even state lines. He pulls out a map of his service area, which he calls his "huge potato" - a sprawling oval the size of West Virginia that spills over into South Dakota and Montana.

To reduce travel times for patients, the nonprofit center's 15 physicians and 10 nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants staff 11 part-time satellite locations outside Hettinger. And when critically ill patients face a two-hour ride to Hettinger in, say, a South Dakota ambulance service, the hospital on occasion sends its own ambulance to meet them halfway. Then, patients can get attention from a more highly trained paramedic before they reach the emergency room.

"We have always prided ourselves on being innovative and aggressive," Mr. Long says. But he is butting up against the same economic and demographic forces the rest of the Plains frontier faces. To keep a certain volume of business, he has to continue expanding his service area. Even then, its population is still declining. At its peak, West River delivered 300 babies a year. The current total has slipped to less than a third of that.

Besides economic and demographic forces, there's another problem. The federal government reimburses rural hospitals less generously for Medicare patients than it does urban hospitals. Two federal initiatives should reduce the difference. Still, the disparity crystallizes a widespread feeling among frontier communities that state and federal government haven't been of much help.

"Why make it more difficult to maintain the services in the rural areas, which only serves to depopulate them?" Long asks. "Rural America should not be forgotten and disposed of because it doesn't fit into the New York way of things."

* * *

Consider the plight of Bridgeport, Neb. At middecade, federal clean-water standards will force its 1,600 residents to clean up the naturally occurring uranium in its municipal water. Their choices: build a treatment plant or hope to find cleaner water by digging new wells. Even with state or federal help to build a plant, residents would have to pay roughly six times their current monthly water bill simply to run it, estimates city administrator Finley deGraffenried.

In more densely populated areas, neighboring towns might share the cost. Out here, the nearest city is 15 miles away, and the pipeline needed to connect it would cost at least $1.5 million.

"I don't want to boohoo this deal. Some of these communities are dying and, frankly, maybe we ought to put a fork in them," Mr. deGraffenried says. But "let me tell you, there's a hole in the Midwest. [And] who gets the time, the money, the political pull?"

Indeed, the political clout of frontier counties was long ago eroded by depopulation. Of Nebraska's 49 state senators, for instance, only 10 represent the nearly two-thirds of the state west of Grand Island. In the US Congress, Rep. Tom Osborne alone represents the same territory - and then some.

Instead, frontier counties innovate locally. When the local cafe closed down in Gove, Kan., in the early 1990s, the county court had to cater meals from out of town for juries, and some officials threatened to leave. So the local community improvement group (which had already reopened the grocery in town) raised funds, as well as a new building, for the County Seat Cafe.

Or consider Loving County in the Texas oil patch, which has fewer people per square mile than any county in the contiguous US (or any part of Greenland, for that matter). Yet its 67 people still find ways to maintain all the traditional functions: a local court, a sheriff and deputy, an auditor, a treasurer, and so on.

"You just think smaller," explains County Judge Donald Creager, who can't remember the last time a felony was committed in Loving. The biggest challenge is getting reelected, he adds. "It doesn't take too many people upset at you to lose a majority."

One of the enduring mysteries of the Plains frontier is that it has so far avoided widespread poverty. Although its median household income - $30,079 - rank nearly as low as West Virginia, the poorest state in 1999, its share of poor households looked significantly smaller (15.8 percent versus West Virginia's 17.9 percent). One explanation: The frontier may spread incomes more evenly than Appalachia does, and its household income actually grew faster than the national average during the 1990s.

But demographers warn that many frontier households remain uncomfortably close to poverty. "It's one of those untold stories," says Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Data Center on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. "If you drop below the poverty line, you're on the radar screen. But if you're marginally above the poverty line, you're not."

That describes Adams County, N.D., to a T. Its median household earned $650 less a year than the comparable West Virginia household in 1999, yet its poverty rate remained a dramatic 5.7 percentage points below West Virginia's.

To cope with its stagnant tax base, the county has consolidated services. Hettinger, the county seat, folded its police force into the county sheriff's office in 1984, merged its street and public-works departments with the county's a year later, and now works closely with the county on various projects.

The arrangement means Hettinger devotes two-thirds of its $260,000 budget to pay for county services. In return, it saves easily $100,000 a year, estimates Mrs. Svihovec, who's credited with pushing the consolidation plan.

Police protection, for example, costs almost the same today as it did when Hettinger ran its own police force - despite 20 years of inflation. And county help has allowed the city to get federal money to repave the highway down the center of the well-kept and still-vibrant town.

Not everyone's happy. "I'm getting tired of working 250 hours a month," says County Sheriff Gene Molbert. "It has not gotten people coming back."

* * *

Some observers argue that the whole county structure - a British import from colonial days - doesn't make sense for the frontier, anyway. James Satterlee, a retired sociologist from South Dakota State University, has suggested counties join forces to create what he calls a "New Community." One government center and a handful of well-located schools could serve a half-dozen counties or "neighborhoods," as they would be called.

For now, what's the key to begin reversing the decline?

"Cooperation," says Svihovec. Although people don't want to hear the problems associated with depopulation, "you have got to get beyond that. You have got to break down those walls and start communicating."

This would be a good time for Adams County to ratchet up that cooperation. Svihovec plans to retire next month.

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