Marquette County Board Discusses Broadband Investment

The Marquette County Executive and Finance Committee met on July 12th and full County Board met July 14th to discuss potentially contributing $1.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds towards a grant that would see Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative bring high speed gigabit fiber internet to over 1000 new residences in Marquette County.

Jerry Schneider, CEO and GM of Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative, spoke with the committee and the County Board about the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Broadband Access Grant. Previously, the County had been having discussions about how to spend the over $3 million in funds they are receiving from the Act. As of now, they are still waiting on guidance on what specific areas the money can be spent. However, one use that is specifically mentioned in the Act is for expanding broadband infrastructure.

Schneider began by explaining that the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) is awarding up to $100 million of Federal ARPA Broadband Access Grants. He asked the County to help fund their expansion grant efforts using the ARPA funds that they would be receiving. Their plan to is target an area of the county that is partially served by a single wireline provider (Frontier Communications) whose infrastructure is built on copper wires and cannot achieve symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds, which is a requirement of the grants. Their new infrastructure will provide symmetrical 1 Gigabit per second speeds.

They are looking to expand in three areas. The first is in the Packwaukee and Harris Townships. They would build out 12.7 miles of fiber that would bring service to 129 eligible subscribers. The total cost for this part is $852,870, with Marquette-Adams pledging $230,275 and the ARPA Support Request for Marquette County being $148,096. They would then receive $324,091 from the grant if successful.

The second is in the Springfield Township. They would build out 31 miles of fiber that would bring service to 316 eligible subscribers. The total cost for this part is $1,756,818, with Marquette-Adams pledging $491,909 and the ARPA Support Request for Marquette County being $385,791. They would receive $790,568 from the grant if successful.

The third is in the Montello, Mecan, and Shields Townships. They would build out 53.62 miles of fiber that would bring service to 651 eligible subscribers. The total cost for this part is $5,010,752, with Marquette-Adams pledging $1,302,796 and the ARPA Support Request for Marquette County being $1,211,118. They would receive $2,254,839 from the grant if successful.

In total, 97.32 total miles of fiber would be installed to 1096 eligible subscribers. The total cost of all three projects is $7,620,440, with Marquette-Adams pledging $2,204,980, Marquette County potentially pledging $1,745,005 of ARPA funds, and potentially receiving $3,369,498 from the grant. The townships receiving the fiber infrastructure were also asked to contribute some of their ARPA funds towards the grant projects.

If successful, most of the new fiber infrastructure would be installed next summer and completed by September. Currently, Marquette-Adams covers about 4,000 households, or more than half of the county. This expansion would increase that to 5,000 households. They have doubled overall coverage since 2010 and have spent $50 million upgrading the network over the past 12 years.

Marquette County Economic Development and Tourism Coordinator Keri Solis spoke at the county board meeting, saying that in their research and outreach to community members and visitors, there was a strong need for improved internet access in the County. A significant number of residents were stuck with only one internet provider and there were some who had access to no providers. Many residents complained of slow and unreliable speeds, making it so they were unable to do virtual visits with doctors or be on video calls. With the pandemic shifting many people to a work from home lifestyle, having better internet access would allow residents to be able to do this. Her research also showed that most visitors to the county would want better internet access and that if it was improved they’d be more likely to move or relocate to the county.

Corporation Counsel Natalie Bussan told the board that their family chose to live in Marquette County specifically because Marquette-Adams offered high speed service at the residence they were looking at.

Bussan said that the money could only be spent in very specific ways, and while they were still waiting on specifics, they knew that developing broadband infrastructure was an approved way while projects like road construction would not be approved. The current contract between the County and Marquette-Adams has provisions that allow either group to pull out at any point for any reason, up until the grants are approved. Right now, all they need is a commitment to the State and they need a set dollar amount to do so. If something else more important were to come up that needed funding, they could back out and use the funds for that project. Bussan said that her talks with the State made it clear that if the County were to contribute the proposed $1.7 million it would definitely help get the funding and put the competitive grant in their favor. She strongly encouraged the townships to say yes now with the ability to change minds later.

Some county board members were concerned about supporting such a big project in such little time. Schneider said that normally these grants have a much longer period of application, but Schneider said that as this is a Federal program, the State of Wisconsin is rushing to get an early start and be one of the first ones in to secure funds before other states get their entries in. Others asked why they should support this effort when their townships would not be receiving the coverage. It was explained that those townships not receiving the broadband infrastructure would not be contributing towards it. It also would be bringing the fiber infrastructure closer to those areas and would allow for easier expansion to those areas in the future.

Members who were in favor of funding it cited the need for improved broadband infrastructure, using examples like students having to use McDonald’s free Wi-Fi during the pandemic to attend school virtually. Others cited their own experiences with internet in the county and the frustrations that they had faced. The final vote on approving the County’s support will happen on July 20th during the monthly County Board meeting.

In other business, new County Administrator Ron Barger made a request to create a $10,000 line-item in current budget for Emergency Transport and to establish the line item in future budgets. Currently, the County Law Enforcement provides mental health transports for citizens, which require those law enforcement members to transport and stay with those citizens while they are evaluated. This can sometimes take up to 8 or 9 hours to complete and has spread their staff thin and created issues when short on personnel.

Sheriff Konrath had approached Barger about trying out services offered by Ready Transports, who would assist in this process and allow the Law Enforcement Officers to return to normal duty after the initial transport. Using the service would help solve the staffing issues that have arisen and would allow them to do their normal duties. Konrath said that they wouldn’t always use them for this service but would use their services if they were short on personnel. Right now, they only plan on trying out the service for the remainder of the year and would then consider whether to continue using it. The Executive and Finance Committee approved the motion to create the line item and try the service.

The committee also discussed a request from the property committee to include a line item of up to $12,500 for purchasing new chairs for the county board room in the 2022 budget. The current chairs in the county board room are older and users are saying they are uncomfortable to sit on. As of recently, all meetings for county board and their committees are held in that room. Many members in these groups are older or have health issues that make sitting through the meetings uncomfortable. Some members said that they spend 2-4 hours a day in these meetings and have brought cushions or their own chairs to use.

Some members thought that as it was under a $15,000 expense they wouldn’t need to send it to the full County Board for approval and that as long as the overall budget was balanced they wouldn’t have an issue with it. Others did not like the idea of spending money on the chairs, citing other places to spend the money, such as on body cameras for the Sheriff’s Department. The committee voted on the motion to include a line item of up to $12,500 for purchasing new chairs for the county board room in the 2022 budget, which passed.

Lastly, they discussed accepting a Venture Architect proposal for $24,500 for an office space study with Samuels Group used for cost estimating. This office space study will include the courthouse, sheriff’s department, Human Services, and the Services Center building. Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Paul Van Treeck said that when they had a long-range planning meeting in April there were a lot of wants and asks from the departments, including office space requests. They decided to do an RFP (request for proposal) study for office space to determine their true needs and to let an independent third-party organization come in and figure out if they have enough space in the buildings and what they would need to do with it.

Members asked if the Buildings and Grounds Department really needed to spend the money on this or if they could go and clean out office space themselves. Van Trecck said that while they could clean out areas to make more room, some areas such as clinical services, who had been having space issues, would require much more planning and expertise than they were capable of. Others asked if doing this would lead to having the county spend millions on future expansions. Van Treeck said that having this would help inform future planning, allowing the board to know what kinds of program expansion they would be able to do with the space they already had.

A motion was made to accept the Venture Architect proposal for $24,500 for an office space study with Samuels Group used for cost estimating, which passed.