Federal money. State plan. County approval?
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SANDPOINT – Bonner County Commissioners are wary of a new broadband development project the state is asking them to approve, forcing them to begin the process of drafting an additional contract that must be signed by the ISP before continuing.
Idaho Department of Commerce is asking commissioners to approve a $ 1.53 million broadband infrastructure project with Ziply Fiber to improve mid-range broadband service in the Spring Creek and Blanchard.
Intermediate broadband does not directly engage the end consumer, but provides the infrastructure that allows individuals to connect. Such a service is expensive to build, but it is cost effective compared to the incumbent service providers that are already established.
The project was carried out between Northwest Fiber, doing business as Ziply Fiber, and the Idaho Department of Commerce. It will be funded by money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that was granted to the state by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though the broadband contract is between the state of Idaho and privately-held Ziply Fiber, the state has asked commissioners to approve the contract that will build the county’s infrastructure. But the commissioners are wary of the proposal.
“This is not our program,” said Commissioner Dan McDonald. “This is a program that comes out of state with the CARES bill money and we are just a vehicle it has to go through.”
Bonner County is not the only county that will receive the infrastructure improvements, but it will receive the largest percentage of money from the project.
“It comes with strings,” Assistant District Attorney Scott Bauer said. “Essentially, it’s about providing more broadband infrastructure in rural areas that don’t have significant broadband access for covid purposes.”
COVID-related goals include telehealth, distance education, and telecommuting.
The main caveat to the project – it may not be legal, according to research by Bauer.
“It’s a very unusual program and right now everyone is in ‘spend, spend’ mode. But once that calms down, regulators will step in and monitor the money to make sure every penny is spent properly, “Bauer said,” the state has shifted the responsibility for spending that money to local governments and through. them “.
If it is decided that CARES dollars are not acceptable for broadband expansion, county taxpayers would be required to pay for the project when audits on the covid stimulus are performed at some point in the future.
“Essentially, we’re taking federal money and basically putting it through Bonner,” Bauer said at the meeting of the commissioners. “We never acquire anything and we never actually acquire any title to this infrastructure. It is extremely unusual.
Typically, the county acquires title, property or service from projects it funds.
“Here, we are just a relay. And what the state is asking us to do is basically the state agenda, “said Bauer,” Our commissioners are placed in a difficult position because if they say no on the basis of what can be done. be legal details, then they embezzle money that everyone else is accepting. ”
For this reason, county commissioners were reluctant to approve the project.
In response, the commissioners craft a contract between the county and the ISP that would be more restrictive than the already existing contract between Ziply Fiber and the state.
“We’re going to have our own accord that ISPs have to measure up, which is much more restrictive outside of what the state says we can do,” Commissioner McDonald said.
The contract will be completed within the next 1-2 weeks, and then it will belong to Ziply Fiber if they are ready to continue with the project. If they do, county taxpayers will be exempt from paying for the infrastructure project if it turns out that CARES money is not meant to be spent on infrastructure, officials said. .
“We felt that [the state of Idaho] completely interpreted the CARES Act in favor of “spend, spend”. But they reserve the right to change their mind at any time. And we are as they please, ”Bauer said in public comments in response to forum questions.
The commissioners approved on Tuesday the progress of the action point, by shared decision. However, Commissioner Steven Bradshaw felt the proposal was not sufficiently transparent.
“I believe there are still questions about the legality, and there are dark areas about it,” he said. “I will make a motion to decline.”
McDonald received a motion to approve the project and resigned as chairman to vote to take the project to the next stage of litigation.
“Believe me, if we can’t clarify some of these things, I won’t support them. And I don’t think Dan either, ”Commissioner Jeff Connolly said after the vote.
Even if the commissioners decide not to approve the project, it is possible that the state will still allocate the money to Ziply Fiber.
“Keep in mind that we are just a middleman,” McDonald said. “We believe Commerce can directly award these grants. But they want to go through the local entity, which is us, and that’s why we have a little heartburn. That’s why we’re going to write our own contract with ISPs to make sure we’re all covered.
Bonner County Commissioners meet every Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Bonner County Administrative Building at 1500 US 2. If you cannot attend, the meetings are streamed live on the Bonner County Planning YouTube channel.