Accelerating Rural Aid

THE U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service is a $6 billion, 51-year-old agency. It issues loans and grants to build low-income and elderly apartments, housing for farmworkers, child care centers, fire and police stations, hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, and schools in rural communities. Most Americans have never heard of the service, but its help is vital to small towns--and that help is getting to them faster.

About a month ago, the Rural Housing Service expected to issue one of the first "direct final rules" under an expedited rulemaking scheme it established in March. A few federal agencies use this method to quickly enact non-controversial changes in regulations. If no one submits an opposing comment within 60 days, the service's direct final rules will take effect just 75 days after being published in the Federal Register.

When the new rulemaking program was announced, staffers were finalizing a direct final rule to provide low-interest loans and grants so rural communities can build fire-and-rescue facilities, said Dan Riggs, a loan specialist in the Direct Loan and Grant Processing Division of the service's Community Programs. Recipients (non-profit organizations, Indian tribes, state and federal government agencies, and local communities) typically are towns with fewer than 20,000 residents. They will get direct loans at about 4 1/2 percent interest with long payment terms that their small cash flow can support, he told me.

There are more of these towns than you might imagine. As Uncle Sam defines it, rural America is 2,300 counties that contain 83 percent of the nation's land. It is where 56 million people live and work. The service's mission is improving the quality of rural life, and a key role it plays is supporting small farmers who depend upon rural economies for their livelihoods.

"There's a tremendous need. Some of these places, there's no alternative source of funding," Riggs said. "It (the direct final rule approach) is worth trying when it saves the government money and it saves these small communities time."

Rural Housing Service Administrator Arthur A. Garcia was a banker in New Mexico when President Bush appointed him on April 1, 2002. With its recent regulatory shift, his agency is doing a better job of sending its much-needed money back home and to hundreds of rural communities across the country.

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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