County Board commits another $30,000 for broadband expansion
Money designated for possible matching funds in grant application
BY KEVIN BONESKE
The Oneida County Board agreed Tuesday to commit $30,000 in its 2018 budget as available matching funds for a state Public Service Commission (PSC) rural broadband grant.
Supervisors, who agreed to support the county Broadband Development Committee’s grant application, heard from committee member Dave Noel of Sugar Camp on the details to expand broadband (high-speed Internet) service in the county with the grant.
To expand broadband service in the rural areas of the county, Noel noted the committee the past four years has worked with a local Internet service provider, Northwoods Connect, which provides service using fixed wireless delivery.
To date, Noel reported the system has 13 tower sites with seven operational and six under development with the project costing $491,986 with close to half of those funds in grant money from the state PSC. He noted the project was awarded around $180,000 in grant money last year.
“The grants require a match,” he said. “(The PSC doesn’t) tell you how much match you have to have, but we’ve come to learn that if you don’t have at least 50 percent of funds to match it, you’re not going to get the grant.”
To expand the broadband system’s footprint, which includes 9,278 households and businesses with 244 current home subscribers and 34 current business subscribers, Noel said five more tower sites are being proposed for the county in the grant application due the end of June.
The expansion plan calls for adding tower sites in Lake Tomahawk (town of Lake Tomahawk), Sugar Camp Chain (towns of Sugar Camp and Newbold), Malvern (town of Pelican), Pelican Lake (towns of Schoepke and Enterprise) and Pelican Lake East (town of Schoepke).
Given the $1.5 million now available in grant money, Noel said the grant application will seek $102,000 from the state PSC with $120,500 in matching funds for a total project cost of $222,500.
“We can’t continue to grow this system that is so important to the county and so important to our rural residents without support from the towns and the county and, in many cases, local businesses,” he said. “It’s a key service…. In order to continue we need at least a little bit of support from the county as we move forward.”
In addition to the $30,000 in matching funds from the county for the grant application, Noel noted $52,500 is being sought from the towns to be serviced, $7,500 from local lake associations, $3,000 from local businesses and $35,000 from Northwoods Connect.
Being that each tower provides broadband service out to a 4-5 mile radius away from a tower site, Noel said the addition of the five towers called for in the grant application would expand the coverage area to 2,665 households and 526 businesses.
The county provided a total of $23,670 in matching funds for the two grants previously received for the broadband system. Though supervisors supported another $30,000 in matching funds for the latest grant application, they debated whether to take money currently in the general fund or budget money in 2018 for that purpose, based on whether committing funds the county currently has would make it more likely to receive the grant.
County finance director Darcy Smith urged supervisors to include the matching funds in the 2018 budget, noting that continually taking money out of the general fund, which was also called for elsewhere on Tuesday’s agenda, could negatively affect the county’s bond rating.
“When we start taking money out throughout the year not through the budget process, we run the risk of affecting our bond rating, so that’s why I would say that we would wait until 2018, as a part of the 2018 budget process,” Smith said.
Given supervisors had no definitive answer as to whether taking money out of the general fund would improve the chances of getting the grant, they agreed to budgeting in 2018 for the matching funds, would could be carried over for future use if the grant wasn’t awarded for the broadband project.