Committee recommends spending close to $2 million on county broadband projects
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY - With $3.25 million in the bank and another $3.25 million expected next year as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, county officials are beginning to prioritize and categorize how the funds will be spent.
A steering committee tasked with setting up parameters on how the Lee County Board of Supervisors might disseminate the funding met again Monday morning to look at how the county will handle requests from groups within the county.
The committee is comprised of Supervisors Ron Fedler and Garry Seyb, Jr., Lee County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom, Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise, and Lee County Deputy Auditor Sara Helenthal.
Fedler said the committee's responsibilities would be to screen proposals and then see which proposals would qualify for potential funding from the county's allocation.
"So basically our job will be to look at all the requests, filter out those that don't qualify and any that qualify we pass it on to the full board for consideration," Fedler said.
"Anything the committee decides doesn't qualify, we would need to follow up with a reason why. We don't want to discriminate against anyone, but we only want to give money to those that qualify."
Seyb said the requests have to fit the full scope of what the ARPA funds can be appropriated for. Those guidelines are still being finalized at the federal level.
The committee has concerns that if funding is given to projects or proposals that don't qualify, the county could be on the hook for reimbursing the U.S. Treasury for the funds.
The committee will also be looking for projects that are getting relief funds from other entities.
"We don't really want them double dipping into relief funds," Fedler said.
Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Mike Norris submitted an outline draft of how the county could review the projects and allocate funding.
Norris broke the allocations out on a percentage bases of the total amount. The funds have to be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
Norris recommended that the funding be allocated to Internet infrastructure at 20%, Child Care proposals at 10%, water/sewer infrastructure projects at 40%, Housing projects at 10%, non-profits at 5%, County projects at 10% and tourism projects at 5%
The committee said 40% for water/sewer was too high and recommended reallocating the funds to 20% for that category and added 10% to Internet projects and 10% to county projects.
Norris also recommended that proposal application include the following information: Organization contact information and tax ID number; funding category being applied for; a project synopsis; implementation timelines; project narratives; administrative reporting plan; a budget; and a budget narrative.
Generally speaking, spending would be authorized for bonus pay for essential workers; broadband improvement; direct benefits to households; water/sewer infrastructure; replacing lost revenue for state and local governments; public health investments/expenditures; childcare investments; and tourism.
Seyb said bonus pay for essential workers could almost be all-inclusive of anyone still working in Iowa, because the state had a large group of defined essential workers and that could deplete the funds very quickly.
He said broadband improvements would have a deep impact and the pandemic made that clear.
"It goes so deep what it effects in my mind. I had everything from teachers to businesses, to your basic consumers, and kids throughout our entire county. They couldn't get on to do their school work. It was amazing how detrimental it was," Seyb said.
He said there are businesses in rural areas that are suffering with low upload/download speeds and some without service at all.
He said he would also like to inspire some matching funds with cities to help offset the high cost of required sewer infrastructure work.
A county project discussed was a building for the Lee County Health Department with a drive-up vaccination design. The county currently is paying $84,000 per year for space at the former Iowa State Penitentiary's John Bennett Center, which could qualify under public health investments. A new maintenance shed that has been a victim of budget cuts the past several years was also discussed, but might be an example of a spend that wouldn't directly qualify.
The committee is set to meet again in July to fine tune the application process.
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