Waldo County officials plan to invest roughly $3 million in federal stimulus money in upgrades to emergency services infrastructure, disappointing broadband advocates in the region who were hopeful that more would be dedicated to investing in high-speed internet.
The county has received the first half of the $7.7 million award from the American Rescue Plan Act. Commissioners have said they are moving forward cautiously with their plans as they wait for more clarification from the federal government on how the money can be spent and as project estimates change due to construction costs.
“It’s like a Christmas wish list: You circle everything in the catalogue and then when it gets closer you’re like, ‘Yeah that’s not going to happen,’” Waldo County Board of Commissioners Chair Amy Fowler said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Waldo is one of the first Maine counties to outline a plan for stimulus money. Counties here are getting $260 million in the stimulus bill, plus another $233 million for cities and towns. It’s a massive windfall expected to lead to major projects that could span jurisdictions, with many discussing broadband, but money for that was whittled down in the county’s plan.
Commissioners laid out the expenditure plans they are considering in a late July letter to municipal officers in Waldo County. At the top of the wishlist is $1.6 million to move the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency out of the sheriff’s office into its own building on the county garden property. The project would also include a new warehouse to house supplies and provide a space where food grown at the county garden could be processed and stored.
The county is also looking to spend another $1.25 million in relief funds on “a complete rebuild” of the Waldo County Regional Communications Center, because much of the center’s equipment is no longer supported by the manufacturer.
“The positive part of doing this project is that it will provide excellent law enforcement and emergency service coverage to the entire county,” county commissioners said in the July 27 letter.
After receiving requests from several towns and the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition, the commission decided it would allocate $20,000 in funds for each of the county’s 26 towns to invest in broadband infrastructure. But it then removed the requirement that the funds be spent solely on broadband after some officials wanted to use the money for other purposes.
The decision to only allocate the $20,000 per municipality was a letdown for broadband advocates in the county, who hoped county officials would use the relief funds to make a more countywide comprehensive investment in broadband.
“When they made their decision they really underfunded the broadband coalition’s efforts and just our broadband efforts in general in Waldo County,” said Andre Blanchard, a Liberty selectman and member of the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition.
Since not all of the 26 towns have plans to spend the $20,000 on broadband investments, Blanchard and other broadband advocates say it’s going to take much more funding to make strides in developing high-speed internet infrastructure.
“I am grateful that the county commissioners recognize the importance of broadband, but I do think it’s going to take a lot more from our towns and county to make sure that everybody gets covered in the coming years,” Northport Municipal Officer Breanna Pinkham-Bebb said.
Fowler said commissioners felt allocating an equal amount to each town would be more fair than giving a large investment to a smaller number of towns. She hopes that a majority of the towns use the $20,000 — which will be sent out on Aug. 31 — to partner on broadband.
The county will continue to hold meetings and workshops to discuss how the funds will be used, Fowler said. She also hoped that the county would have more of a clear idea on if these projects can be done using the relief funds after it files a report to the federal government at the end of the month.
Changes in project estimates could also cause the county to change course on its spending plan.
“Everything isn’t completely concrete,” Fowler said.