Bartholomew County is creating a committee to help bring broadband internet access to the area through partnerships with the private sector.
The Bartholomew County Board of Commissioners approved the group’s creation Monday and appointed newly-elected commissioner Tony London as its chairman and commissioner representative. Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz called the group “the Bartholomew County Broadband Initiative.”
County residents have approached the commissioners about helping with broadband internet access, Kleinhenz said. And with schools going virtual due to COVID-19, there are now “additional pressures” for the county to help with that need.
While the commissioners have felt that broadband should be provided from the private sector without government involvement, the pandemic changes things a little bit, said Commissioner Rick Flohr.
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While commissioners still don’t want to compete with companies or create a broadband utility, they said Bartholomew County does have a role to play in bringing internet access throughout the county.
“The private sector is probably a lot more willing to get involved if the county, as a group, makes some type of commitment toward the investment or toward the project,” Kleinhenz said. “We want to be a catalyst.”
London said the commissioners will not be providing broadband access.
“This group is going to get together and define the need of countywide broadband and develop a map and a strategy to get us to that goal,” London said.
Several other Indiana counties are using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to support broadband initiatives, Kleinhenz said. But that means the county must act quickly, while CARES funds are still available, he said.
“If we don’t utilize those monies, they go to someone else or they go to another community,” Kleinhenz said. “And I know it’s not easy to hear for some people, because it’s still tax dollars, but we need to get as many of those dollars for our local community as we possibly can.”
County auditor Pia O’Connor confirmed that they can use funds for the initiative in accordance with the CARES Act. She said that in the most recent budget of CARES fund that she presented to county council, an estimate of $450,000 is allocated to the countywide broadband initiative.
She added that these dollars could be used as matching funds for grants or go toward putting cell towers on township fire departments.
“We can help with eLearning, economic development for remote workers and just basic improvement of quality of life, especially because we’re all hunkered down in our homes,” O’Connor said.
County council member Jorge Morales said that the conversation about countywide broadband was “long overdue” and that some county funding might be available for the project.
“From a financial point of view, I don’t think we’re going to have that big of a problem. I’m only speaking for myself, understand that, but I think that there will be people in the council that will be very agreeable to do some financial if needed,” Morales said.
There are state government grants that provide $40,000 to $50,000 for communities to hire engineering firms to help with broadband service, Kleinhenz said.
“We’re going to be looking for every bit of alternative funding that we can find, and there’s actually quite a bit available out there, but they have application deadlines. And one of them is Dec. 23. … So we need to get going,” London said. There will likely be multiple providers involved in the efforts to provide broadband and multiple means of delivery, he said.
“REMC will play a role,” London said. “And my guess is, there will be more than one provider. There will be more than one way that the broadband will be delivered in the county. It might be fiber in some places. It might be towers in some places.”
Scott Mayes, the county’s director of information technology, said that since companies tend to focus on building up their own infrastructures, the county should help promote areas that need to be linked together by additional infrastructure.
Mayes and O’Connor should be on the broadband committee, Kleinhenz said. The group should also include at least one representative from county council, he said. He would like to have Morales serve in this capacity, and he’s heard that council member Matt Miller has discussed possibly serving on the committee as well.
He and Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop have agreed that the city of Columbus should also have a representative on the committee.
The county would also like to have a representative from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and possibly one from the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County as well, Kleinhenz said.
The Heritage Fund has already done some work on broadband, so it makes sense to include them in the county’s efforts, London said.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel, we want to bring them in and include the work that they’ve done, so we don’t have to do it again,” he said. “But they have a lot of people on the Heritage Fund that are very well-versed in this, and they’re very interested in seeing this happen.”
The broadband initiative is likely not going to be an ongoing “management board,” London said.
“Once we have our plan in place and things are running, we won’t need this group anymore,” he said. He also said that he is fine with making meetings public and that the committee will be reaching out to the “entire community” for their input on the broadband initiative.
Kleinhenz said that London should start contacting individuals this week about serving on the board. Committee members will be formally appointed at the commissioners’ next meeting but can start meeting in the meantime.
“The iron’s hot, so to speak, and we need to strike,” he said. “Because again, for me, the availability of the CARES Act funding is really critical to this. And we can’t afford to wait another six months or a year before we start investigating. We’ve got to get on this immediately.”
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