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Changes in farm bill to USDA program could mean millions for rural municipalities

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Farmers aren’t the only ones who are tracking the Farm Bill as it makes its way through Congress this summer.

A key change in the population criteria needed to apply for Rural Development loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture could help a handful of communities in the north country that are now ineligible get much-needed funding for infrastructure projects.

Applying to all USDA programs, the new law would create a single definition for a rural community: a city, town or village with fewer than 50,000 people that is not adjacent to a municipality with more than 50,000 people. Rural Development funding is a source for water, sewer and community facility projects including schools, hospitals and fire stations.

Now disqualified because their population size is above the federal program’s threshold of 10,000 residents, about 60 villages, towns and cities across New York state would become eligible to receive funding, according to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Municipalities that would become eligible in the north country, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, include LeRay (21,078 residents), Canton (10,995), Potsdam (16,041), Massena (12,883) and Malone (14,545).

Mr. Schumer fought to include the provision in the version of the farm bill passed by the Senate in June with a bipartisan vote, 64-35. But the House, which is now amending its version of the bill to be voted on this summer, has not approved the program.

That’s why Mr. Schumer is now making a charge to ensure the law stays put. He outlined how the law will greatly benefit communities across the state Wednesday during a conference call for reporters.

While municipalities in New York have reaped the benefit of Rural Development funding — bringing in $2.1 billion from 2004 to 2011 — a large handful were left out when new requirements took effect in 2010. The changes set a population of 10,000 for its wastewater program, and 20,000 for its program that funds community facility projects.

“Scores of upstate communities have been shut out from infrastructure projects because the definition of rural is narrow,” Mr. Schumer said. “It was meant for rural states like South Dakota, but it excludes states like ours with rural populations that are more densely populated. This new provision will knock out suburban communities that are (adjacent) to cities like Rochester and will help communities that have lost funding due to the current low debt ceiling.”

The town of LeRay, for example, was booted from the USDA program because its population of encompasses Fort Drum. The town has previously received millions in grant funding from the program for infrastructure projects. But asking taxpayers to fund large-scale projects could now be a major hurdle, said Steven T. Harter, administrative clerk to the supervisor.

In 2002, the town funded a multimillion dollar project to expand its sewer district that relied on millions in Rural Development grants.

“The problem is that taxpayer costs will be so high that it won’t be affordable to participate in projects without grant funding,” he said. “Households can’t afford $1,500 in sewer charges, but with a grant you might be able to get the typical household cost down to $500.”

Massena Mayor James F. Hidy said the village has used USDA funding to construct its multipurpose center and for other infrastructure projects but is now at a major disadvantage because of the program’s criteria.

“Any funding the USDA could provide in this region would be beneficial because of the revenue we’ve lost through downturns and the closure of industries,” he said.

In the same boat, the village of Potsdam is seeking to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant — an $8 million to $15 million project — but likely won’t be able to do so if it can’t corral grants or low-interest loans.

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