By Carol Vaughn —
Broadband, volunteer fire departments, and childcare were among items discussed at a work session the Accomack County Board of Supervisors held Wednesday to begin considering how the county should spend $6.3 million in federal money it will receive as result of the American Rescue Plan Act.
No formal action was taken at the work session.
Two dozen people spoke at a June 2 town hall meeting about use of the funds, with 10 of the 24 speaking about the need to expand broadband.
“I think all of us can be in agreement that broadband is at the very top of the list,” said Chairman Ron Wolff.
“A very large chunk of the money should be for that,” said Supervisor Donald Hart Jr.
Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason encouraged the board to avoid using the funds for recurring expenses, consider coordination with towns where needs overlap, encourage public input before setting priorities, consider investing in projects “that will build for the future,” and resist making immediate decisions.
He noted the county has until Dec. 31, 2024 to obligate the money.
Mason also urged the board to think in terms of setting up competitive programs as opposed to providing financial assistance to individual businesses or entities.
“For instance, childcare. You could…set up a competitive program, set some standards, such as a grant program that looks to expanding existing childcare opportunities on the Eastern Shore. You could specify that the recipient be a nonprofit and then you could direct the county administrator to come back to you with program parameters for standing up such a program,” Mason said.
The process would be similar to what the county did when it provided small business assistance grants, he said.
In the area of broadband expansion, the Commonwealth Office of Broadband recommended localities put off starting specific broadband projects until the General Assembly special session, set to start Aug. 18, is over, Mason told the board, noting the state fiscal recovery fund has $4.3 billion to be appropriated by the General Assembly.
Federal funds localities receive through ARPA could be used for the required local match for VATI grants — that state program is expected to expand significantly, using some of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, Mason said.
The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) extends broadband service to currently unserved areas.
Mason said the next round of applications for VATI grants will be the first time a locality may partner with a nonprofit authority rather than with a private-sector business.
Hart said Accomack-Northampton Electric Cooperative should be part of the board’s broadband discussion.
“I think our broadband concept…should be like a co-op, like they used to do electric co-ops. A&N Electric has poles and lines to every home on the Eastern Shore…If we could utilize their poles and their lines and put broadband on them, you could have broadband to every home,” he said.
Hart recommended setting up a committee and starting a conversation with ANEC.
Supervisor Robert Crockett called broadband “a necessary public utility” and recommended asking the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority to develop “several plans” for how it would use different amounts of money — for example, amounts between $1 million and $4 million.
“The first plan I would like to see, though, is what is their plan currently, because I don’t want them to take $1 million from this and just use it for another plan they already had funds for or they had planned to borrow money for, because that’s not helping us at all,” Crockett said.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have funds like this to be able to address a very, very serious problem that we have with broadband on the Eastern Shore,” he said.
Wolff said he would like to see the ESVBA plan include a timeframe for using the funds.
In addition to broadband, the board discussed distributing some of the federal money to volunteer fire companies to help offset losses they incurred during the pandemic as result of not being able to hold fundraising events.
The board also discussed the need for more child care in Accomack County.
The board by consensus directed Mason to inquire whether the ESVBA would want to partner with the county to apply for a VATI grant and to submit a letter of intent to apply for the grant if the ESVBA does.
Additionally, the board directed staff to develop a competitive grant program with criteria for giving assistance to child care providers.