Thursday, October 18, 2012

Council set to tackle rural issues

Jamey Dunn

After polling Illinois residents and conducting a listening tour of the state, a council headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has adopted a plan for rural development in Illinois.

The Rural Affairs Council — made up of state administrators, academics, business leaders, representatives of the agriculture industry and citizen members — conducted a poll of more than 1,000 residents to find out how rural Illinoisans gauged their quality of life and what issues and services are priorities for them. The group also toured the state, stopping in six cities to hear feedback. The resulting plan, called Vision for Rural Illinois, focuses on the concerns and needs of rural communities.

One of the biggest issues the group hopes to address is access to emergency care for rural residents. “People in rural areas are concerned about the fragile nature of rural [emergency medical services],” said Karen Poncin assistant director of Western Illinois University’s Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. “They are concerned that some day, they will call an ambulance and there won’t be anyone to come to help them.”

The council plans to work with an Illinois House committee that is also looking into the issue and hopes to propose legislation in the coming spring session. “It’s a long-running problem about how we fund emergency medical services in rural areas. In a small geographic area with a high population, the ambulance rides are short — back and forth — and they can do many in a day. In rural areas, the rides can be quite long and take a lot of staff just to be available to do that transportation part,” Simon said. She said that ambulance services in more remote areas of the state require flexibility and may have different needs in terms of training and communication technology. “So we’re looking at training standards. We’re looking at staffing standards and how we can make sure that people in every part of Illinois, including remote and rural parts of Illinois, are served by ambulance services.”

Another one of the council’s goals is to inform rural residents and businesses of services that already exist. Simon said that while on the listening tour, the council often heard about needs that current programs might be able to address. “We’re talking about services that help small businesses grow or services that help small businesses start,” she said. “Frequently the comment comes up from people who are in business who look back and say, ‘Oh, now that I know about some of these programs, I wish I would have known about that before, when I was just starting.’ So it tells me that we have more people that we can be reaching in terms of letting them know what’s available in the state of Illinois, particularly to develop the economy.”

Those surveyed by the council said that access to high speed Internet was also a priority. Simon said that federal grants have helped to bring more access to remote parts of the state, but there areas without fast reliable service. “More and more digital service is getting out to rural Illinois, but there’s still plenty of last miles to go before we have that service available across the state,” Simon said. “When we talked about infrastructure issues, access to the Internet was brought up as one of those infrastructure [issues]. It’s viewed as highways are viewed by folks now, and particularly, in terms of economic development. In order to build our businesses, we need to have access to the Internet.”

Simon, who calls Carbondale home, said she considers herself a rural resident of the state and that the council hopes to make urban residents more aware of rural issues. She said that rural and urban areas also share many common concerns, such as education funding. The lieutenant governor said she is realistic about what the council can achieve with limited funds. “I certainly have been very aware in this whole process of the limits of the state budget and have been very careful to not promise more than we can deliver. So my focus has been on within the scope of the state budget that we have within the challenges that we know, how can we make sure that we’re doing the best job for rural Illinois?”

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