Overton: Rural Iowa getting passed over

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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With recent news, you’d almost think Iowa is experiencing an economic boom.

Facebook recently announced that it would open a new data center in Altoona, a Des Moines suburb. Google plans to expand its offices in Council Bluffs. MidAmerican Energy also decided to invest $1.9 billion in Iowa’s wind-energy capacity.

But there’s one problem with all the recent development and great new things in Iowa: They’re almost entirely in major cities.

By contrast, rural areas are still struggling.

I suppose MidAmerican could put its windmills just about anywhere, so that’s a wildcard. However, compared with much of the state, wind speeds at 80 meters high are relatively low in that wide swath of impoverished southeastern Iowa counties.

Even some development that rural Iowa has been promised hasn’t panned out.

A mining company applied for a permit to open a new silica sand mine in northeast Iowa, but the local county board of supervisors passed an 18-month moratorium on the practice, and an adjacent county followed shortly afterwards.

Organizers in one county have said they intend to implement so many regulations so that silica sand mining becomes unprofitable, while the other group says it only wants to make the process less damaging to the environment and local infrastructure.

It’s not as though mining would have been much of a boon to the local economy anyway.

Historically, mining has failed to produce long-term prosperity and often leaves local economic depression and ghost towns in its wake, according to a report published in May by Power Consulting. Not something rural Iowa needs.

And, of course, populations are shriveling across small-town Iowa, which is increasingly elderly and attracts relatively few young people. A shrinking or stagnant workforce is under greater pressure to support a growing elderly population.

Gov. Terry Branstad made matters worse when he vetoed legislation that would have created a commission to examine Iowa’s troubled emergency-medical services. Iowa law states that towns and counties can actually opt not to provide these essential programs to residents.

A Des Moines Register investigation found that often, volunteers operate ambulances in rural areas, and shortages have become extremely problematic. It’s become so bad that high-school students have reportedly been called out of class to act as first responders. Meanwhile, larger cities typically employ professionally trained paramedics.

Being by their nature more spread out, people in small towns are greater distances from hospitals than those in cities. Iowans deserve the same level of medical treatment with the same degree of urgency regardless of whether they live in a city or a small town. Just because you live in a rural area does not mean you are any less entitled to the right to live than someone in an urban setting.

I’m all for efficiency in government, but when we’re talking about people’s lives — that is the wrong place to be stingy.

Branstad explained his veto of the commission, writing, “An additional task force, growing the size, scope, and cost of government, is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars at this time.”

In other words: Who cares about people’s lives when it contradicts my ideology?

It’s wonderful that tech companies are expanding in Iowa and that several cities have relatively solid ambulance services, but many rural regions don’t have those. We have to remember that rural Iowans are people, too, just like us. And many are suffering because of circumstances beyond their control. This is unacceptable.

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