Basic amenities like running water and flushing toilets aren’t guaranteed everywhere in Texas. To develop community infrastructure like first-time water service and paved roads, rural Texans have traditionally turned to the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, one of a few small agencies on Gov. Rick Perry's budget chopping block.
Perry's office says he doesn't want to eliminate the agency's functions altogether; he wants to merge TDRA with the state Department of Agriculture to save $6.4 million per biennium. “The governor is simply calling on legislators to look at where possible functions are similar so we can streamline administrative costs,” said his spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier.
The TDRA distributed more than $3.7 billion — most of it in federal funds — over the last decade for community and economic development, disaster recovery and health services. Julie Kelly, spokeswoman for the TDRA, said the agency tries not to comment on potential legislation but hopes "the Legislature really considers the needs of rural communities and how they would best be served."
The debate raises the question — what does the TDRA do, and could the Agriculture Department do it instead?
"I think its not only a good idea, but a great idea," said Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, whose agency currently provides financial assistance to farmers and facilitates agricultural trade and market development in Texas.
The merger idea belongs to the governor. Under the House and Senate's proposed budgets, the TDRA would still face cuts: $10 million less for rural development grants, and a $3 million reduction in the agency's program to recruit health professionals to rural areas. More than 90 percent of TDRA’s community and economic development funding is federal — much of it matching dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Only 10 Texas counties have large enough populations to receive federal funding directly from HUD; the other 244 counties must apply — read: compete — for funds through TDRA.
A large chunk of the funding TDRA distributed over the last decade — $660 million — is federal money awarded by HUD for hurricane damage. Galveston County received the highest total funding — nearly $175 million — of which $171 million was disaster-contingent. Often these grants help communities prepare for future disasters, like a project to install backup generators in Burleson County so the two hospitals in Caldwell won't lose power in future storms. Disaster relief also includes funding for community emergencies, like if a town's water tower collapses. "Most small communities don’t have the funds to cover something that’s unanticipated," Kelly said.
TDRA also runs the State Office of Rural Health, which promotes the accessibility of health services in rural Texas. They’ve helped relocate 250 health professionals to rural areas, usually by providing stipends or repaying loans. Mitchell County Hospital, a 25-bed facility in West Texas, used funding from the office to buy a radiography machine so nearby residents wouldn’t have to drive 70 miles to Abilene for an X-ray.
There’s also a grant program for the border-area colonias, which is intended to help residents get potable water, adequate sewage systems or prepare them for incorporation into nearby cities. In the El Paso colonias known as Lourdes and El Conquistador, a $350,000 grant from the TDRA was used to connect 96 households to first-time water service.
Staples says these programs (including the federal dollars) could be wrapped into his agency, reducing overhead costs and allowing the state to provide more services and focus on job creation in rural Texas. "Agriculture and rural Texas are dependent upon each other," he said. "The two agencies have a complementary mission."