What's Needed for Rural Renewal?

From population loss to the opioid crisis to the challenges of economic development, there are many challenges facing rural communities.  Distrust in government, too, is high in rural communities.  What difference can the state government make?  Can better laws make life better for rural New Yorkers?

Kendra Sena, the Government Law Center's Senior Staff Attorney.

From distrust in government to the opioid crisis to the complexities of economic development, there are many challenges facing rural communities in New York and across the country.  Andy Ayers, Director of the Government Law Center and Assistant Professor of Law at Albany Law School, moderated the fourth and final Anderson program in the 2019 series on the topic of rural renewal.  He began with a brief message from the Government Law Center's Taier Perlman, staff attorney for the Rural Law Initiative, who expressed regret for her absence; she was attending the Law School Conference of the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice to share findings from the Rural Law Initiative's report on access to justice in rural New York.

Samantha Levy, New York Policy Manager for American Farmland Trust, opened the discussion by asking the audience to reconsider the so-called upstate-downstate divide, and instead reframe the narrative as one of shared interests, stressing that issues affecting rural communities—farmland preservation, climate change, and soil and water health—matter to all New Yorkers.  New York, she said, grows "the full plate": fruits and vegetables, grains, and meat.  Agricultural work represents $40 billion in economic activity annually and farms serve as anchor businesses in rural communities, keeping those communities thriving.  All New Yorkers, she said, are affected by the health of New York farm land, making the issues relevant across any imaginary geographical divide.

Christian Mercurio, Vice President of Planning and Development with Mohawk Valley Economic Development Growth Enterprise, a non-profit regional economic development group based in Oneida County, NY, acknowledged that rural communities face distinct challenges stemming from small populations across expansive geography.  He gave an example from New York's smallest city: Sherrill, NY, population three thousand.  Once home to Oneida Silverware, the city has found ways to revive much of the 1 million square feet of industrial buildings the company left behind when it moved its manufacturing overseas.  An out-of-state investor and a number of entrepreneurs and established businesses have the site buzzing again, housing, among other things, America's only flatware manufacturer, Sherrill Manufacturing, and employing 400-500 people.  Opportunities are everywhere, he says, but while local governments often have strong leadership and vision, they often lack full-time staff with expertise in planning and grant writing to seek out, develop, and execute new projects in rural communities.

Rick Su, Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo School of Law, noted that most of the study of local government is focused on cities, but there are layers and layers of governments in New York—counties, villages, and towns—that are the primary mechanism of government in New York State.  He encouraged the audience to look at the local governments themselves for a solution to rural renewal.  Rural residents, he said, feel devalued and disempowered in the political systems that operate not only at the state and federal levels, but at the local level as well, where sub-state governments are designed to function as administrative subdivisions of the state rather than as democratic institutions.  He proposed a solution that would include significant local input in state policy, a restructuring of local governments to empower democratic capacity, and a reimagining of sub-state governments as "school houses for democracy" with a meaningful role in policymaking.

Dr. Katie Zuber, Assistant Director of policy and research at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and Executive Director of the Center of Law and Policy Solutions, has studied a critical issue affecting rural communities: opioid abuse.  A national crisis that is experienced and must be addressed in local communities, the opioid overdose death rate is three to five times higher in New York's rural communities than in New York City.  But, she said, we know less about how substance abuse becomes a problem in rural communities, how it affects those communities, and whether state and national government responses are adequate.  Her research focused on Sullivan County, located 90 miles from New York City and with about 78,000 residents across a thousand square miles.  Sullivan County has the highest opioid-related emergency-room admission rates, highest opioid-related death rates, and highest opioid prescribing rates in New York State.  But the opioid crisis cannot be isolated to rural communities; seven out of ten overdose deaths are in urban areas.  And rural and urban communities are intimately connected by food systems, water systems and, of course, governments.

Ayers pressed the panel on rural disaffection and discontent.  When asked whether rural communities feel that state government does not serve them, Levy acknowledged that there are a number of strong and important rural advocates in state government.  But many large state renewable-energy projects, for example, are proposed for rural communities, often on productive farm land.  Not owning the decision-making process for siting these large projects in rural communities is a challenge.  She works with local governments to protect farms using zoning and land-use laws, ensuring that renewable-energy siting supports farm operations and does not compromise productive farm land.  Mercurio said the regional economic development councils have filled some of the gap, giving people a platform for communicating a vision for their communities.  Since their formation in 2011, despite critics' comparison of the program to The Hunger Games, there has been more than half a billion dollars invested in his six-county region, 40-50% of that outside of urban centers.  Communities of 300–3,000 people are making choices about businesses, natural resources, infrastructure, brownfields, blight, and tourism that will last for the next 50 years.  Su noted that poverty scholars have called for a "holistic approach," rejecting the siloed way in which decisions are made at the state level in favor of general-purpose governments that we see on the local levels.  Zuber noted that a common thread in her interviews in Sullivan County was that they were "too small to matter" to state and federal policy-makers.  Because of its size, Sullivan County is ineligible for some seemingly helpful grants that require a larger population.  Residents reported that their first and most urgent need to serve their community was for state and federal officials to come to Sullivan County and better understand the problem so as to tailor the response. 

Ayers noted that population decline is a looming problem for rural practicing attorneys.  Perlman's research found that many are approaching retirement without any sense of who will take over their practice.  Levy said this was a major problem among farmers; the most recent census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (2010–2015) found that 40% of farmers in New York are over age 65.  When farms transition to the next generation is when land is most vulnerable to being sold out of farming and lost to development.  State programs like the Agricultural and Farmland Protection Program exist to attract the next generation of farmers to farming, and help them to access land and capital— critical elements to the success of New York's agricultural industry, she said.  Zuber found the same problem in mental healthcare; although there are open treatment facilities for people battling opioid addiction, some of those beds stay empty because of a lack of qualified physicians, nurses, social workers, and counselors in the area.  In Sullivan County, for example, there is a two-year wait for an appointment to see one of the county's two child psychiatrists.  And while doctors, dentists, and veterinarians can all prescribe opioids, few have gone through the burdensome process of certification to prescribe medication-assisted treatment.  Mercurio noted that a bright spot in his area after 40 years of population decline has been the increase in immigrants and refugees settling in the area.  Coming from all over the world, they are talented, bright, energetic people propping up the area's largest industries and adding their expertise, fresh perspective, and innovation.

Questions from the audience were varied, and went to several controversial issues affecting rural areas.  Asked to respond to the practice of one-person one-vote, Su admitted that the system has created problems.  It's a constitutional issue, he noted, but could be resolved with weighted voting to ensure that each community has a person in the room who represents their community.  Such a change would emphasize that having presence has some weight even if it doesn't translate to votes.  Levy also suggested having more hearings on state policies that affect rural communities in order to incorporate the rural voice.  She also noted that it was imperative that the downstate areas understood how intertwined their lives are with the upstate areas.  On the topic of regionalism, Su agreed that it promoted efficiency but at the expense of democratic representation.  He said that reorganization might help if we could map our boundaries onto the reality of how the communities see themselves.  As it is, he said, counties are too big and town lines are random—often bisecting communities into two or more towns.  Mercurio agreed that town lines are arbitrary and that village and small cities are more representative.  Su and Mercurio agreed that representation is key to rural identity and to strengthening the position of rural communities and economies.