County Leg leader wants local government stimulus used for broadband

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 March 2021 at 7:20 am

County officials will ask towns, schools to contribute some stimulus funds to expand high-speed internet

ALBION – The American Rescue Plan includes several millions for local governments, money that the Orleans County Legislature leader says would be put to good use by expanding high-speed internet throughout the county.

Lynne Johnson

Lynne Johnson

The American Rescue Plan also includes $7.9 million for Orleans County, and an additional $4.4 million for the 10 towns and four villages, and $12.5 million for the five school districts.

“If we’re all in this together, it makes it affordable,” said Lynne Johnson, the Orleans County Legislature chairwoman.

The county has been working for about a decade to expand broadband or high-speed internet, but has largely missed out on state and federal grants. The county has data points where the service is currently unavailable. It would cost an estimated $4.2 million to fill all of those gaps.

Johnson would like to bypass another state and federal grant cycle and move quickly to use some of the stimulus funding to bring in broadband. The state and federal grant programs can take many months of waiting to find out if an application is approved, and then many more months to get a project complete. Johnson said it would likely be 1½ to 2 years before broadband could be expanded in Orleans County if the project was funded through a grant.

The Covid pandemic exposed the shortcomings in the county for high-speed internet service, with many households unable to log on to the internet to do homework assignments or to have the option of working from home, Johnson said.

The federal stimulus funding encourages municipalities to use the money for infrastructure projects, including expanding high-speed internet.

“I think the timing is just right,” Johnson said about the funding.

County leaders will be meeting with Niagara County officials to see if they want to do a joint project for broadband. The two counties have been working together on the issue through the Niagara Orleans Regional Alliance. Estimates for bringing high-speed internet in the two counties is over $10 million, with the areas in Orleans at $4.2 million.

Johnson also said she will be convening a roundtable discussion with town and school leaders in Orleans County, trying to get them to help pay for the cost. The county has a breakdown of the internet gaps in all 10 towns, she said.

The county’s $7.9 million from the federal government in the American Rescue Plan doesn’t come in one lump sum. The county gets half this year and the other half next year.

“We would like to move forward immediately,” Johnson said. “We’re ready to go.”