Working for rural America
To hear Karen Miller tell it, her decision to first run for elected office was, for the most part, made on the spur of the moment. A political junkie who had volunteered in numerous local campaigns, Miller was attending a planning meeting for a 1992 fundraiser for a Boone County, Mo., commissioner when she struck up a conversation with other attendees about the open commission seat that represented her district. Miller expressed her dissatisfaction with the announced candidates.
“One of the guys that was there said, ‘Well, if you will run, I’ve got the [necessary] forms out in the car in the glovebox,’” Miller recalls. “He went out and got them, and that started me down this road.” A Democrat, Miller was elected to the commission that fall. Now, her journey has led her to the presidency of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo), a title that she will assume this month.
The daughter of a grain farmer, Miller was born in 1952 in rural Lake County, Ind. Seventeen years later, she and her family moved to Scotland County in northeast Missouri, where her father currently serves as a county commissioner. By the late 1970s, Miller had moved to Boone County, a county of approximately 135,000 residents located in the center of the state. She owned and operated a restaurant and bar called The Establishment in Columbia, Mo., the home of the University of Missouri. “I called it that because I wanted to cater to the establishment and not to the students,” she says.
Miller continued to run the bar during her first year in office. However, the demands of running a county and feeding its residents proved too much, and she sold the facility.
Soon after her election to the Boone County Commission, Miller became involved with NACo when she was appointed to serve on the Transportation and Telecommunication Steering Committee. During the past decade, she also has served as the chair of the organization’s Highway/Highway Safety Subcommittee, the Sustainable Leadership Team and the Finance Committee. In July 2000, she was elected to NACo’s Executive Committee and has spent the last year as the association’s first vice-president.
A passionate advocate of rural America, Miller intends to use her tenure as president to advance the awareness of the problems non-urban areas face. Increasing rural areas’ access to grants, working to improve their technological capabilities and making sure their needs are addressed in the 2004 presidential and congressional campaigns are all on her to-do list.
In a recent interview with American City & County, Miller discussed not only the plight of rural America, but the lingering fiscal crisis of local governments, homeland security, issues that counties will face, how life is different for county leaders than it was just five years ago and how she will measure the success of her term.
What are the key issues facing counties today, and, of those, what is the most important?
There are several key issues. The top one would be the fiscal crisis that we’re under right now. Homeland security would probably be next, [and] it would tie with the problem of uncompensated healthcare for services rendered at county facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, etc. And then you have the ongoing transportation needs, economic development, workforce training and development, those kinds of issues.
The fiscal crisis is a crisis for America. NACo did a survey and found that nearly 72 percent of America’s counties are facing some kind of budget shortfall. That’s pretty significant. Many of those counties have already tightened their belts. There is less money coming from the federal level and the state level. And, as the states get squeezed, [there is a] trickle-down effect. We get the squeeze.
Programs that [states] had always helped counties with, maybe they are [reducing their] support. Or, [the states are] cutting it out altogether, and you’re faced with trying to decide whether you cut the program or whether [you] raise taxes at the local level. In this survey, 45 percent of the counties identified that they were looking at tax increases. [Counties] are dealing with making cuts in critical areas, whether it be the firefighters, police, teachers. Those [are] some of the things that [counties are] really struggling with, because the citizens understand there’s a crisis, but they are still expecting more. They are not ready to make those tough cuts. So, it’s really a struggle out there.
How will the association address those issues during your term?
[One] of the things that we’ve been doing, and that we will continue to do, is to try and get some kind of economic stimulus package for counties. We had $4 billion for local governments, for city and counties, that was included in the Senate version of the tax bill that just passed. But, when it went to conference committee, it was cut out and all given to the states.
Another thing that we’ve been working on for several years, and it’s finally resonating with the Congress, is [the] collection of a sales tax on Internet and catalog sales. For a long time, people in the Congress were thinking that it’s a new tax on the Internet and that it was going to stop commerce. That’s not at all what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is equity — equity for the local mom-and-pops, the local businesses that support the streets, that support the kids’ groups, that support everything in their community. They are at a disadvantage to [businesses on] the Internet. But, you buy something over the Internet, those goods still have to be shipped on our roads. I mean, they still use all the services that are required by local businesses.
Another part of what NACo does is work to find ways to save counties money, and it helps [them] to become efficient. And, we do that through our for-profit arm, where we have a cooperative purchasing program. A large county, say Fairfax County, Va., or Los Angeles County, will bid a product, and [the bid] will be done so that every city or county in the country can piggyback off that bid, so they don’t have to bid it themselves.
It’s been a wonderful program for local governments. In fact, in 2002, the program saved more than $150 million for local governments. That’s pretty significant. We try to look at ways to stretch the dollars through those kinds of programs.
Also, I’m really interested in trying to help counties find a streamlined approach to applying for grants. A lot of times, [counties] just don’t know they’re available. I’ve been working with the federal government on a project in which all the federal agencies [will put] their grants on one Web page. You can then put in what you are looking for, and you can get all the grants that meet that criteria. That should be done by October. It’s going to make a big difference, especially for rural counties that don’t have the staff to hunt for grants on their own. I’m trying to find ways to help rural county officials have a chance at a more equal playing field with their urban counterparts.
How will the upcoming 2004 presidential and congressional elections affect NACo’s pursuit of its agenda?
It’s a great opportunity to get your issues included as part of candidates’ platforms. If you think about President Bush, the rural areas of the country elected him. So, what are you hearing from the Democratic candidates right now? You’re hearing about their rural platforms.
If we can help [candidates] develop a platform that’s going to make a difference in rural America — one that’s not just talk — and hold their feet to the fire once they win, whoever wins, then we’ve really won. You only get that opportunity during election years, when you can help [candidates] develop a platform and then hold them accountable to that platform.
How is life different today for county leaders than it was five or 10 years ago?
Five years ago, we were in the boom years. Our funding was growing. [Boone County] is a sales tax-dependent county. We were growing, at one point, in double digits. We were really growing our revenue sources. Today, we budget for zero growth. So, right there, you have a significant fiscal difference. [Boone County] is not in crisis mode. We’re not laying off people. We’re not cutting things. We are slowing down the growth. For instance, we’re slowing down the changing out of a piece of equipment, making it go one year longer than we normally would. We’ve taken those kinds of steps.
[Counties] face more regulations from the federal level — for instance, the regulations from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. That has a major impact on anyone that has employees. It’s a cost anytime you have regulations.
For my county, EPA Phase II regulations kicked in this year, so there’s a significant cost to controlling stormwater and meeting all the requirements that are set out in the federal law. Do I think it’s needed? Absolutely, but it wasn’t something on my radar screen five years ago.
From a national perspective, the awareness of the importance of counties has increased over the last two or three years. I think that awareness came with the [2000 presidential] election problem. People finally recognized that counties do all the elections. It led to people thinking about counties all over America and how they conduct elections and what’s going to work and what doesn’t. As an association, we played a major role in developing the [federal] election reform bill and are now working with the implementation of the bill.
And then, 9/11. It was the local governments that were required to take care of that disaster. I think that raised the awareness of the importance of our local governments. Counties played a role in that, and I think that people recognized that.
What are the most pressing homeland security issues for counties?
I really think that what’s got to happen, and I don’t see happening, is there’s got to be those regional plans. I’ve heard [Secretary of Homeland Security Tom] Ridge talk about it, [and] he’s in the process of laying out a template on how to develop those regional plans.
I just studied the heat deaths of 1995 in Chicago. They really needed the resources of the region to get through that. So, that’s just a good example of, if you have a regional plan, and you know what the assets are out there, and you know what the shortcomings are of the different people in the region, you know what you might have to contribute should something happen in that community. I think it will be part of our duty to help our counties to recognize what their responsibilities are in a regional plan.
How will NACo be addressing the most pressing technological issues that counties face?
The bad news is that technology changes all the time. The good news is that technology changes all the time, and it gets cheaper. It’s a real challenge when you buy something and it’s outdated two years later. So, we can’t do anything about the market forces. But, we can help counties that don’t have the technological ability to find ways of meeting their needs. We’re trying to find these partnerships that will give [counties] another way to stay technologically current to allow for business enterprise to come into [their] communities.
One of the things that we’ve done very successfully is partnered with ESRI on GIS [technology]. ESRI gave away GIS kits, [along] with some training, to counties across America, to help them get started on GIS. That’s some of the best technology coming around to help [counties] make good decisions. If you can get that implemented in your community and [you’re] able to start building layers, you can definitely look at the what-if scenarios. If you’re trying to decide on where to site a sewer plant, [you can examine] the area around it. Is this a 20-year plant, or is this a 30-year plant, based on the way growth is going? Based on the topography, is this going to be developable area? It really helps having that underlying aerial photography and those contours and things to be able to look at it from that perspective. We will try and continue to help with those kinds of processes.
What issues are currently below the radar that might surface in the next five years?
The federal budget deficit could have a huge impact on county budgets. As that deficit grows and the desire to reduce federal support to local government increases, it puts greater pressure on our counties. I think that’s a key one because the deficit doesn’t seem to be an issue at the federal level right now.
Another issue concerns our infrastructure: roads, bridges, water, sewer. Sewer is such a critically important part of protecting our water quality, and there is very little funding to help develop these very expensive infrastructures. A lot of times, you find communities that are faced with not being able to tax themselves enough to be able to provide these services. There used to be a funding source for those big water and sewer projects, but that dried up over the last several years. I think it’s something that is going to come back and bite us.
Our aging population is another issue. I just see in my own community that the population is aging, even with it being a college town. Out in the rural areas, we’re getting a lot more seniors that are still living in their homes. The needs for better healthcare and in-home care and nursing homes are going to increase, and I’m not sure that we have the stock that we’re going to need to be able to meet [those needs].
We’re seeing more [migration out of rural areas] all the time. That’s something that I would like to be able to stop.
As far as homeland security, one of the things that we haven’t touched on is agro-terrorism. We’ve [looked] very little at how to protect our food source. That would be one of the quickest ways for someone to terrorize us — to poison our food source. It’s something that hasn’t raised to the surface, but that’s something that needs attention.
Another thing would be the fact that [the country] is losing two percent of our jobs overseas [to other countries]. That’s what we’ve lost over the last two years. Is that trend going to continue? If it is, what are we going to do with our unemployment levels?
How will you measure the success of your presidency?
I’m focusing on rural issues. If I can help rural America have some new tools and opportunities, and if I can raise the awareness that we’ve got to find a way to protect the rural areas from extinction in many places, then I will feel that I have been successful.
We’re dealing with a lot of people moving out of the heartland. Do we want to see a bunch of ghost towns across America? I’m not saying that we need to build cities out in the country. Not at all. But, if [rural areas] can just have some kind of economy that keeps [them going], then they can be viable options for people to raise their children there and be able to live [there]. I’m afraid we’re taking those options away because of some of the inequities of what [rural areas are] dealing with.
Part of my whole vision is to develop partnerships with other rural organizations across all segments of society — whether it be the rural educational community, the rural healthcare community, the rural hospitals, the rural electric cooperatives, all the different organizations that lobby for rural America on their own — and try to have a unified message that we can deliver to the Congress and to America. If I can get some of the partnerships created, and if I can just raise awareness in the Congress through these partnerships, then I think I will have succeeded.
Miller at a glance
Residence: Columbia, Mo., 1979-present
Education: Associate of Arts Degree from Stephens College, Columbia, May 2003
Professional background: Office Manager, Wulff Brothers Construction Companies, Columbia, 1976-1979; Bartender and, later, Bar Manager, Holiday Inn West, Columbia, 1979-1981; Owner and Operator of The Establishment restaurant and bar, Columbia, 1981-1993
Government: District 1 Commissioner Boone County, Mo., 1993-present
Transportation and Telecommunication Steering Committee, member
Highway/Highway Safety Subcommittee, chair
Sustainable Leadership Team, chair
Rural Renaissance Task Force, member
Finance Committee, chair
2nd Vice-President 2000/2001
1st Vice-President 2001/2002