Arco remains a metropolitan area in the eyes of the Census Bureau, and Butte County Commissioner Rose Beverly said it’s unlikely to change.
“We’re at a loss as to what to do,” said Beverly. “We’ve left it in the hands of the federal level.”
Arco has a population just below 1,000 people. Normally a town of that size would be classified as rural and would be eligible to receive government grants for development. However, because of its status as a metropolitan area, Arco community leaders don’t receive grant money that could help pay for improvements in the city.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, sponsored the Statistical Area Fairness Act of 2019 in the U.S. House and Senate to rectify the oversight, but nothing came of it. Beverly said the bill, which was introduced in February, was ineffective because the county lacks the population necessary to get federal entities to pay attention.
“We can’t make them listen to us and make this a priority,”she said.
Beverly cited two examples of how the classification hurts the community. She said the Lost Rivers Medical Center’s new surgical facility almost wasn’t built because a joint venture with Bingham Memorial Hospital and the Arco center fell through. Only hospitals in rural communities are allowed to enter joint ventures, which means Lost Rivers had to end its agreement with the Blackfoot-based hospital.
Beverly’s other example was Arco lost out on a multi-million dollar grant to improve its airport. She said the city “wasn’t even allowed to apply and had to get ahold of whoever was in charge and ask for an exception.” The exception was allowed and town leaders applied, but Arco did not receive the grant.
Monica Hampton, director of Butte County Economic Development, said the Census Bureau classifies Butte County as metropolitan because the Office of Management and Budget includes the county as part of the Idaho Falls metropolitan area. Despite being 66 miles from Idaho Falls, the county is listed as a subdivision because of economic integration with the Idaho National Laboratory.
“According to the OMB rules published in the Federal Register, outlying communities with a high degree of social and economic integration are considered part of the core based statistical area,” said Hampton. “One of the factors to determining economic integration is commuting from one area to the other for work. The Idaho National Laboratory is primarily located in Butte County, and a majority of the lab’s employees live in the Idaho Falls area. This commute from one county to another causes all of Butte County to be considered part of the Idaho Falls metropolitan area.”
Beverly said another way INL affects towns in Butte County is it throws off the curve for median income. Because the lab is located in the county, the listed median income is about $87,000, but in reality it should be around $34,000. Just like with Arco’s designation as metropolitan, this means the town loses out on some government funding.
Hampton said the income anomaly affects Butte County’s ability to apply for wage-based incentive programs, which are designed to attract businesses to an area. Butte County can’t apply for them.
“Most people do find it unfair,” said Hampton. “You could go anywhere in the country and tell people about our problem and they would be upset.”
Beverly said she and her fellow commissioners might appeal the issue at the judicial level and look outside of Idaho for help. However, she said it is unlikely they will get help because “no one else in the country has this problem.”