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County hopes to bundle fed grants

County hopes to bundle fed grants County hopes to bundle fed grants

City of Wausau supervisor John Robinson, chairman of the county’s Finance, Property and Human Resources Committee, said Friday he hopes to pool “a couple hundred thousand dollars” in unspent town, village and city Route to Recovery federal grants to improve rural broadband services.

He said county administrator Lance Leonhard will send out a letter to all county municipalities this week asking them to shift their unspent grant dollars, authorized by the CARES Act, to a county broadband pot.

“We are looking at quick fixes like putting something on a tower or government building to improve service,” Robinson said. “We have towns like Berlin, Hamburg and Texas where we have a problem of getting election results. Maybe we can do something to help.”

Robinson said the county will have to act quickly to disperse the funds, if they are made available. Unless Congress would extend a deadline, all Routes to Recovery dollars must be spent by Nov. 6.

“We don’t know an awful lot and we don’t have much time to figure things out,” he said.

The supervisor said the county received $2.1 million in Route to Recovery funds. These dollars have been spent on jail operations, COVID-19 supplies and other things. He estimates that county municipalities may have received $1.4 million, but, given restrictions on the funds, much of the money may not have been spent. He said the amount of Route to Recovery money municipalities received depended on population. Town governments may have received between $10,000 and $15,000. The City of Wausau received $600,000.

Robinson said county officials met recently with public school superintendents across the county to get an idea of what kind of broadband technology is needed to support distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said he hopes that $56,000 budgeted for broadband enhancements can be used to hire county staff to pursue a Routes to Recovery project and application for a Wisconsin Public Service Commission grant.

The supervisor said he is hopeful the county, towns and local internet providers can prove nimble enough to fund a broadband project before the federal deadline lapses.

“We need to go from zero to 60 miles an hour in a second,” he remarked. “We will try to get our critical needs met.”

In a Thursday discussion before the county board, county board chairman Kurt Gibbs, town of Cassel, told supervisors the Wisconsin Counties Association has asked the state Department of Administration to clarify whether Routes to Recovery grants can be used to improve internet service for underserved school children.

“It has been looked at,” he told county board members.