Ozark County Commissioners have finally pulled the trigger on allocating money to a White River Valley Electric Cooperative (WRVEC) fiber optic internet project, voting Monday to earmark $1 million to the project.
Presiding Commissioner John Turner read a letter Monday morning during the regular weekly commissioners’ meeting from Stone County commissioners, who have earmarked $4.3 million to the project.
WRVEC had asked for a $10 million total commitment from the five counties it serves (Ozark, Stone, Taney, Christian and Douglas counties). The cooperative had requested $1.4 million from Ozark County from the $1.8 million the county had received from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), federal funds tied to covid-19 relief.
Turner said Ozark County could not give the full $1.4 million asked of them, because all but $1.1 million of the ARPA funds had already been spent or were allocated for other projects.
In making the motion to earmark the million dollars, Turner said he feels like, since the money was kind of a gift from the federal government, he thinks it will be well spent if it brings high speed internet to the county.
“We can’t just use this money on anything,” Turner said. “And this broadband internet is one thing that it can be spent on. I think the fast internet will help with education and will help our business community and help draw businesses to Ozark County.”
Western District Commissioner Layne Nance echoed Turner’s sentiments: “It’s kind of like what the governor told us at our meeting about the ARPA money. He said for us to use this money on something our kids and grandkids will see benefits from for years to come,” Nance said. “I think this fiber optic internet is really going to help us and generations to come.”
Eastern District Commissioner Gary Collins said he was a little reluctant to vote to give that much money to WRVEC for the internet project.
“I don’t like the idea of giving that much money,” Collins said. “Ozark County doesn’t have the revenue of some of these other counties, and Douglas County isn’t giving anything.”
After a brief discussion, all three commissioners voted to earmark the money to WRVEC for the high speed internet project, with stipulations that other counties contribute and that the internet is delivered as promised.
$234 million project
The overall cost of the fiber optic internet project will be about $234 million, according to WRVEC officials, who have said that the project will take five years, but that 90 percent of the county will be online with it in three years.
So far, only Stone and Ozark counties, out of the five counties, have committed local funds to the project.
WRVEC officials said the local funding is required to received grants for the project.
Douglas County district 2 commissioner Brad Lovelace told the Ozark County Times recently that their county cannot contribute financially.
“We just can’t right now,” said Lovelace.
Lovelace told the Times that WRVEC asked Douglas County to contribute $2.4 million of its ARPA funds. “We’re only getting $2.2 million and we’ve already spent half of that on the courthouse,” Lovelace said. The commissioner said that they are spending over a $1 million to make improvements to the their courthouse which include a new central heat and air system.
“Our courthouse has never had (central) air conditioning, so when this money came available we saw it as an opportunity to get it done,” Lovelace said. “Also the roof is about to fall in on the courthouse so we’re going to have to probably spend money on that too,” he added.
Lovelace said Douglas County has offered to do “whatever else” they can do to support WRVEC’s broadband initiative. “There’s some things going on and we feel that the state will step in and foot most of this bill … there’s other money out there,” Lovelace said. “We do want and are in support of this plan,” Lovelace said.
The proposal would bring high speed internet packages to WRVEC customers, broken up into three packages, including:
• 100 Mbps for $69.99 per month
• 500 Mbps for $79.99 per month
• 1 Gbps for $99 per month.
In other business Monday, Turner said he wanted to clarify what the county’s general revenue fund is and explain what it supports.
“A lot of people apparently don’t understand that the county’s general revenue fund takes care of a lot of things,” Turner said. “People are talking about this use tax [proposal], and they see that county general revenue gets one and half cents and they wonder why that fund gets so much while road and bridge and the sheriff’s department each only get half a cent (on a dollar) tax.”
“The general revenue fund covers a lot of things,” Turner said. “It pays for the upkeep of the courthouse and staff, the recycling center and we help the sheriff’s department to the tune of about $200,000 per year and give the assessor about $40,000 every year.”
Turner continued “general revenue has a big plate. A lot of money goes out of general revenue … yeah it’s a big pot but there’s a lot of holes in it.”
Turner’s comments were in response to some criticism to a use tax proposal that is on the April 5 ballot. The tax, if passed, would place the same 2.5 cent tax on internet and catalog sales that is currently on local sales.