BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – A panel formed to help figure out how the county’s $6.5 million in federal recovery funds will be allocated, made a slight turn on Monday.
The group met following the regular Lee County Board of Supervisors meeting and decided to recommend a change in the percentage of the funding being allocated to the county projects.
At earlier meetings the committee had recommended the following allocations: 30% to broadband improvements; 20% to county water and sewer projects including EPA mandated sewer separation projects in incorporated cities in the county; 20% to county projects, 10% to child care projects, 10% to housing projects, and 5% each to non profits and tourism efforts.
On Monday, committee member Garry Seyb recommending changing that formula to reflect an increased amount for county projects.
“That’s kind of where we started out to take a look at things we wanted to support with the funds,” Seyb said.
“At one point we talked about doing something with the health department. And with other county projects, that could potentially be a lot more than $1.3 million, if we can even do that.”
Seyb then recommended moving the county projects portion of the funding to 30% and cutting the percentage allocated for sewer and water projects in the county to 10% or about $650,000. The increase to county projects would put $1.95 million toward county projects and $1.95 million to broadband expansion.
Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise said Des Moines County is moving toward building a new health department.
“Which kind of surprised me. Our state auditors told me that is pretty gray area. We could use the loss money for it, but he wasn’t comfortable with us using the actual Rescue funds,” Fraise said.
Seyb said a FAQ sheet from the government gave guidance for using the funds appropriately for improvements to health departments, but new construction wasn’t as clear cut.
Fraise said she has an email into the Treasury Department for clarification on the issue but hasn’t received a response yet.
County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom said she’s sat in on meetings where new construction was discussed and it wasn’t looked on favorably for purchasing or building new facilities.
“We have to find out for sure. To me that’s a really gray area and I don’t want to do something now where in 3 years we have to come up with the money to pay it back,” Renstrom said.
Seyb said if there was the potential to do a large infrastructure improvement with the health department, he would recommend bumping the county project money up to 30%.
“The water sewer is something we’re pushing out throughout the county versus an overall for the entire county. I was thinking at least rather than push it to the incorporated areas, maybe look at taking 10% from it and bumping the county projects,” he said.
“I think we need to look at focusing on ourselves a little bit because the money is coming to us. Each one of the incorporated areas are receiving money. We are just looking at augmenting them.”
Ron Fedler said he didn’t think it was legal for cities in the county to get money for themselves and then get it from the county.
“That would be double-dipping,” Fedler said.
But Renstrom and Fraise said that county can provide extra money to the cities if they choose and there’s nothing in the guidance to prohibit cities getting money from the government.
Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission Director Mike Norris, who sits on the committee, also is an administrator for the Southeast Iowa Regional and Economic Port Authority. That group last week approved a plan that included applying for the entire $1.9 million in broadband money from the county for a new fiber optics network to be built by Danville Telecom in Lee County.
The $1.9 million would help trigger state grants that would pay for an approximate $5.5 million new fiber optic backbone that runs from southern Lee County up through the western part of the county to Hwy. 16 and then back east to Hwy. 61.
The money would also help provide connection lines to take care of homes not getting at least a 25/3 download upload speed in the county.
Norris said he will also be coordinating an ask with the Great River Housing Trust Fund for money from the $650,000 for housing projects. Coupled with SEIRPC’s role in administering the port authority, Norris could represent close to $2.5 million in funding requests from the committee and the county.
“So as we make the sausage here it’s gonna be lots of things thrown in there over time and as things become clearer on the rules, if they ever truly become solidified, which I’m not convinced that they will. We’ll do the best we can with the funds,” Seyb said.