SNOW HILL – Worcester County will use close to $5 million in federal funding to expand broadband access and support local fire companies.
The Worcester County Commissioners this week voted 6-1 to use the first half of the county’s funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for broadband and fire companies. Expanding internet access has been a focus of county officials in recent months.
“We’ve been pushing this down the road for years,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “This is an opportunity.”
Through ARPA, Worcester County has been designated slightly more than $10 million, according to Incoming Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young. He said the county had received half the money and would receive the other half next year. The county can use the funding to replace lost governmental revenues or for investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, Young said.
“A hot topic has been broadband,” he said. “While it varies significantly depending on terrain and if you’re crossing water or railroads and so forth, a conservative estimate for broadband installation is approximately $100,000 per mile. It can be significantly less than that if there’s no obstructions but that’s a good rule of thumb.”
He added that the commissioners at their last meeting had already agreed to use $512,500 of the county’s ARPA funding for the Lewis Road sewer project, leaving $4,564,500 to be allocated.
Bunting, pointing out that he hadn’t supported using the money for Lewis Road, said he wanted to see it used for broadband and fire companies. Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said the county could use the funding to incentivize internet companies to come to Worcester County. He said he’d spoken to officials in Caroline County about successful efforts there.
“I think it’s worthwhile to look at this template that Caroline County and probably others around the state have used …,” he said. “Really if there’s no need to reinvent the wheel we probably shouldn’t.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino spoke in support of using ARPA funds for broadband.
“It’s not often that county government gets a windfall like this,” he said. “This is certainly significant. It gives us an opportunity to address the situation that we all recognize is a problem and that’s broadband connectivity throughout the county.”
Commissioner Ted Elder, a longtime proponent of expanding broadband, agreed.
“With the broadband, most people in the county will be gaining from it,” he said.
When asked about the cost of bringing broadband to all of Worcester County, Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said it was estimated at $52 million. Young added that Talkie Communications, the company currently working on installing broadband in the southern end of the county, had already acquired $6.6 million in grants to help in the process.
“So they are chipping down that $52 million estimate,” Young said.
A motion from Bertino to direct the $4,564,500 in ARPA funding toward expanding broadband and increasing financial support to Worcester County’s fire companies passed 6-1 with Mitrecic opposed.