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County approves $9.5 million for internet

County approves $9.5 million for internet County approves $9.5 million for internet

Board OKs borrowing to build a local internet backbone in county

On Tuesday, Taylor County took a major step forward in improving access to high speed internet for all county residents.

County board members voted unanimously to approve borrowing up to $9.5 million over the next five years in order to construct a “middle mile” backbone that will be a combination of countyowned fiber optic lines and transmission towers.

Tuesday’s vote is the culmination of about two years of work by the county’s broadband committee under the direction of committee chairman Mike Bub.

According to Bub, the county’s goal all along was to provide access to affordable, reliable internet service to all county residents by 2025. Bub highlighted concerns expressed in a county-wide survey about speed and connectivity issues with internet hindering the growth and development of the county.

Of counties in the state, Taylor County ranks second to the last for access to high speed internet. Bub said some parts of the county are well served but the less populated areas have little to no service creating a situation of “haves and have nots.” This digital divide became more apparent this spring with the COVID-19 pandemic causing schools to be closed. About 30% of Medford students are unable to access the internet from their home, even using school-issued chromebooks and other devices.

There was some discussion about what the county was actually seeking to use the money for. “I don’t understand what you are asking us to build,” said board member Ray Soper. “You haven’t told me what you want to do with this money.” Bub explained the goal is to build the middle mile network which will serve as a backbone and will allow private internet service provider (ISP) companies to lease space on the lines in order to sell internet service to customers. Initially the county had looked at a completely fiber network, however, Bub noted that with advances in wireless technology it will be a combination of the two. He also explained that they had no intention of duplicating service already offered by TDS Telecom or other companies, but are seeking to make it cost effective to fill in the gaps.

Under the county’s plan, the county would set up a corporation that is owned by the county. It is this corporation that will contract for the installation and maintenance of the lines and equipment as well as enter into lease agreements with private ISPs. Over time, revenue generated from the leases would come back to the county and pay off the construction cost. Bub projected a total payoff time of under 20 years. Another benefit of setting it up this way, is the county could potentially sell off the lines if they were approached by an outside company wishing to do so.

The timing for action now is to have the county’s commitment to the project so that in October ISP companies can bid on census blocks to receive federal subsidies to provide services to rural areas across the county. In addition, the interest rates are near historic lows. County finance director Larry Brandl was told by the county’s bond advisors that they would likely be able to borrow for around 2% interest rate. In addition, Brandl said the county will have all its existing debt paid off in 2022. This gives the option to work these new debt service payments in under the existing tax levy. “Some borrowing is not a bad thing,” Brandl said.

County board member Gene Knoll said he was excited by the idea of a combination of fiber and towers because of the potential for leasing space on the towers to cellular providers. He said this would address both the poor cellular reception in large parts of the county and improve broadband access.

Board member Rollie Thums said it was important for the county to show it had some skin in the game in order to negotiate with ISP companies and attract development. “It is very important that we vote yes,” Thums said.

Land purchases

On a pair of ballot votes, board members approved the purchase of the Bauer property parcel and once again rejected the purchase of the Harold Miller property. Both parcels are adjacent to the Taylor County Fairgrounds and highway shop.

The county was looking at the Bauer parcel for additional space for not only parking and highway department use, but to also gain storage for law enforcement, buildings and grounds and land conservation.

A major sticking point for some on the board was the $300,000 price and the potential of demolition costs for structures already on the site. Buildings and Grounds supervisor Jeff Ludwig said his conversations with the seller was to have a set period of time for a mobile home and a modular home on the site to be removed.

Board member Scott Mildbrand opposed the purchase because he felt a planned new highway shop in the Rib Lake area would address many of the storage needs. While he commended the county for making an investment in broadband, he said he thought it would be unwise to purchase either of the parcels.

Zenner disagreed saying that he would always vote in favor of the county acquiring land that becomes available that could be used by the county. The Bauer property is currently assessed at $218,000. Ludwig said he did not think the asking price of $300,000 was excessive.

Board member Ray Soper requested a ballot vote with each member casting a signed ballot. On that vote the purchase of the Bauer property passed 12-5.

The Miller property is located to the immediate east of the fairgrounds and has been discussed several times in the past for the county to purchase it. Board member Lester Lewis said the $165,000 asking price was too high for a parcel that only has about two acres of buildable space. The bulk of the parcel slopes steeply to Correction Creek.

Board member Dan Makovsky supported purchasing the parcel for what it would bring to users of the fairgrounds as far as additional camping and animal exercise space. He requested a ballot vote. In the end, board members rejected the purchase of the Miller property 13 to 4.

In other business, board members:

_ Received an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the county and approved an amendment to the March resolution declaring a state of emergency to clarify that it would continue until the county’s executive committee voted to end it. The resolution is the authorization for the county’s emergency committee, which addresses county operations in relation to COVID-19. This committee deals with issues such as access to county facilities and personnel, but does not have authority in the community. Public health director Patty Krug, through state statutes enforces public concerns including the ability to place people in enforced quarantine under the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

_ Approved a pair of resolutions required to have in place for the county to receive Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. The first says that if the county used the grant money to purchase a place where people were currently living, the county would be obligated to find them a new place to live. The second was to add to the sheriff’s policies a clause prohibiting the use of excessive force against peaceful protestors. Board members had expressed concern about the impact of adding this to the policy manual. Graff noted it was already part of the law. Dave Rasmussen of MSA, who is helping the county with the grant process, said it would neither strengthen nor weaken the county’s policy but was simply language that was needed to be there to qualify for the grant. Taylor County Supportive Housing is seeking a CDBG grant for the purchase and start up costs to establish a homeless shelter in the county. Soper opposed the policy language.

_ Recognized retired county sheriff’s department employees Jason Ray who had 16 years of service as a jailor/dispatcher and Nancy Mayer who retired last summer after 20 years as a jailer/dispatcher.

_ Approved an ordinance change formally eliminating the education committee and directing the county board chair or his designee to serve as the liaison with Northcentral Technical College. The committee had been eliminated by resolution several years ago, and this action updates the county code to match it.