Commissioners struggle to prioritize federal relief funds | News
A request from BrightRidge officials to use $2.64 million of Washington County’s federal pandemic relief funds to help it secure a state grant to expand its local broadband service makes the object of scrutiny.
“I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” County Commissioner Freddie Malone said during a meeting last week to discuss how Washington County will spend its $25.5 million share. dollars from American Recovery Plan Act funds. Malone told county ARPA committee members that the unaddressed issue is the lawsuit between Washington County and BrightRidge over a zoning issue involving a bitcoin mining operation that is scheduled to go to trial on March 14.
“I’m talking about human nature,” Malone said. “The commissioners feel they have been misled by BrightRidge. Until this issue is resolved, I cannot vote for this.
Washington County is now being asked by BrightRidge to cover a local game by 30% to receive a $6.17 million emergency broadband grant that the utility plans to apply to the Department of Economic and Community Development for. Tennessee. The grant would cover an $8.8 million project to address pockets of unserved neighborhoods in its service area between Tennessee Highway 107 and Interstate 81 near Fall Branch.
The grant request comes as Washington County commissioners continue to struggle to identify projects for funding from its ARPA funds. Members of the county’s ARPA committee expressed frustration last week that details on how those funds could be spent have been slow to come.
“We just received the rules from ARPA – all 400 pages – within the last 10 days,” said committee chairman Jim Wheeler. “If we spend that money in violation of the rules, we will have to pay it back.”
Concern to correctly interpret those federal rules was part of the reason the committee decided last week to forward BrightRidge’s request for ARPA funds to the county budget committee on Wednesday without a formal recommendation.
Committee members said they hope questions about the legal requirements of a request for proposal that must accompany the grant application will be answered by the time the budget committee meets.
To further complicate the issue, BrightRidge has a pressing timeline to send the request to the state. Stacy Evans, director of broadband for BrightRidge, said the application must be submitted by March 15.
“The moment is so brutal,” Commissioner Jodi Jones told her colleagues. “With the ARPA rules that have just fallen, it’s difficult. And we’re just starting to review our projects.
Wheeler provided committee members last week with a pie chart outlining what he called broad blocks of the type of projects to be funded with ARPA dollars. Commissioners said at least 49% of those funds should go to water projects, 20% for heating and cooling upgrades to the Washington County Courthouse and 10% for broadband expansion. (which would cover BrightRidge’s grant application).
Another 10% could be used for agriculture (including a $2 million request for a regional meat processing plant), 6% for firefighting services and 1% for development programs of the work force.
The state grant would enable BrightRidge to provide its high-speed broadband services (up to 10GB) to more than 1,800 homes with approximately 5,400 residents in nearby communities of Hartmantown, Harmony, Bowmantown and Conklin.
The grant would pay for the construction of 230 miles of fiber to extend internet services to these areas. Evans said BrightRidge also plans to make a $2.36 million investment to extend fiber between newly connected areas that could serve an additional 5,629 homes.
“This is a great opportunity to have a long-term impact on our community,” BrightRidge CEO Jeffrey Dykes told curators last week.