Washington Evening Journal
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DES MOINES - Rural Iowa needs more assistance from the state to address housing shortages and limited access to high-speed internet, three state task forces told the governor Tuesday.
The task forces, led by Lt. Gov.-elect Adam Gregg and developed as part of Gov. Kim Reynold's Empower Rural Iowa Initiative, issued their report Tuesday, calling for the creation of an Office of Rural Affairs to assist with rural policy development and provide a permanent rural perspective at the state level. The groups also recommended creating a database for rural communities to share available programs, best practices and development strategies.
'I'd like to thank our dedicated task force members for bringing forth excellent recommendations to meet the needs of rural Iowa - access to quality housing, leadership in our small communities and sustainable broadband connectivity,” Reynolds said in a statement.
'For Iowa to truly be successful, we have to see growth in every corner of our state,” she said. 'We've seen positive things happening in our rural communities, but there's still a lot to do. These recommendations are just the beginning, and I can't wait to see how we will continue to empower rural Iowa in the future.”
Reynolds charged the three study groups - the Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force, the Growing Rural Iowa Task Force and the Connecting Rural Iowa Task Force - with identifying needed legislative, regulatory and policy changes.
In tackling housing challenges, the report recommended communities undertake housing-needs assessments with the help of state agencies and resources.
'A housing-needs assessment can help a community get more housing built,” the report said. 'It proves the existence of a market to builders, it is often a prerequisite for access to state and federal programs, and it is a critical first step for communities to take to understand precisely what type of housing they need and at what price points.”
The report also recommended reforming the workforce housing tax credit program to make it more accessible to rural developers.
When it comes to expanding access to broadband internet, the report acknowledged the need in rural areas, noting that access makes communities more attractive to residents - 'Who wants to live in a new home if it is in a community that is not connected?” the report said. High-speed internet has become commonplace in school activities, provides rural residents access to the growing field of telemedicine, and it is crucial in agricultural uses such as precision farming and GPS systems.
But the report also acknowledged the lack of funding at the state level.
The 'Connect Every Acre Act” was signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2015, establishing an initial $5 million grant program to award service providers that invest in broadband access to farms, schools and rural communities, with the goal of Iowa becoming the 'most connected state in the Midwest,” Branstad said at the time. But the grant program wasn't funded until the 2018 legislative session, the report said, when $1.3 million was allocated.
'No matter how the state decides to fund the broadband grant program going forward, the funding will of course be limited,” the report said. 'Therefore, it is important that any funds appropriated be used as efficiently as possible.”
The report recommended the state prioritize 'low connectivity areas,” instead of targeting areas where broadband connectivity already is available. It also emphasized the need for faster download speeds.
'To truly be ‘future ready,' state incentives should support download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second with preference to systems that offer symmetrical speeds,” the report said, noting that the 2015 legislation only calls for 25 megabits per second of download speed.
The task forces - established by an executive order in July - were co-chaired by Gregg and Iowa Rural Development Council Chair Sandy Ehrig, and held meetings in Earlham, Holstein, Maquoketa, Mount Pleasant, Pella and Stanton.
'Gov. Reynolds heard the concerns of Iowans, identified three of the main challenges and used this process to help identify solutions,” Gregg said in a statement.
An eight-page report of the task forces' findings can be found on the governor's website at governor.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/ERI%20recommendations.pdf.