The View From Rural Route #8
Rural America is in trouble. At least that’s how I see it as a member of a rural county’s board of commissioners and also as a rural Kansas writer since 1973 when I graduated from Kansas State. Rural folks, I maintain, can no longer afford themselves.
By that, I mean the lonely residents cannot afford the property taxes required to build and maintain adequate schools, bridges and roads. They cannot afford to compound those high costs with the modern expectations of the delivery of social services. Those include but are not limited to ambulances, mental health services, low-priced public transportation, conservation education, economic development, emergency services, home health care for incapacitated folks, health department mandates from state, federal and non-governmental certification outfits, modern fire fighting equipment and training…you get the idea…schools serving breakfast, lunch and snacks and childcare.
In my county the ambulance service alone costs more than $330,000 a year, or $47 for every man, woman and child in our 7,000 person population. And that doesn’t include the ride to the hospital cost. Efforts are under way to have the general U.S. population help pay for that in the form of Medicare/Medicade reforms, but don’t bet on it happening. We have no pharmacy and only one medical doctor in my county, and others are worse off.
Way back in the countryside where the hills give up their water runoff to the more sluggish rivers and streams below, the little bridges still in service are both obsolete and worn out. Small wonder they are in poor condition, although still photogenic for the scenery magazines, because some of them are more than 100 years old. Real men guiding mules with slips and hauling rock by wagon and team built those bridges. But now to get a bridge built, it literally takes a joint act by what I call the professional office cartel of engineers, lawmakers, legal teams, architects, zoning agents, and other officials to release the money you should be able to build five little bridges with in order to build just one. And it takes 25 months in my own recent history with this outrage to see three go from flood-wrecked to replacement with FEMA funding. Flint Hills counties are the worst, with our thousands of stream crossings supported by thin populations and low tax bases.
Also in my little county of big spaces and great scenery are two state highways. When the state decides to close one of those and detour traffic for scores of miles around to replace a bridge, as it did earlier this summer, the daily hardships are real for local school children and teachers, mail carriers, farmers, ranchers, commuters, and regular delivery drivers who often take more dangerous but far shorter routes home and to work or school. The state expects the locals to jeopardize themselves in this way rather than have the state spend the money to build an onsite detour known as a shoofly. The message is probably not intended by the state, but nevertheless the message says, “You local rural people don’t matter to us.” We don’t have the luxury of paved, safe and close by alternate routes out in the real country that you have in Topeka.
This may come as a shock, too. We don’t all have broadband out here, and we all don’t want to buy and maintain computers, either, at personal expense, just to serve the state and its revenue department. That is why we still have a U.S. Postal Service. The state insists on doing business only via computers. Yet the state has its own abysmal computer history to live down, but it expects citizens (not subjects, mind you) to own and maintain a perfect system to send in their income and sales tax reports, complete with electronic sweeps of bank accounts. Clip this out and send it to the Governor’s office if you agree.
The more I think about it the more I think the state owes its rural citizens a sweeping apology and then a wholesale change in conduct and attitude toward them.
Jim Suber is an award-winning farm, ranch, and rural life columnist residing on Rural Route No. 8, Topeka.
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