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Finance Committee affirms commitment to broadband expansion
In Crawford County
Rod Olson at Finance Committee meeting
ROD OLSON, CEO of Vernon Communications Cooperative, attended the Nov. 3 meeting of the Crawford County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee meeting to iron out the details of the broadband expansion project recently funded by a PSC grant.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - At the November 3 meeting of the Crawford County Board Finance Committee, the a discussion focused on how the county would work with Vernon Communications Cooperative (VCC) on a broadband expansion project in the northern part of the county. Vernon Communications CEO Rod Olson attended the meeting in person.

“The $5,697,500 grant VCC secured for this project was the second largest grant award in the most recent round of funding from American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds,” Olson explained.

The funding for the project will use grant funds, as well as $350,000 from Crawford County ARPA funds, $50,000 from the Seneca School District ARPA funds, and $677,500 from VCC. But, in order to cash flow the project, Olson had secured agreement from the Crawford County Board to commit a portion of the county’s ARPA funds to cash flow the project until reimbursement from the grant funds can be secured.

“What I need from the county is a line of credit to pay the contractor until reimbursements from the grant are received,” Olson explained. “It seems that we will be able to apply monthly for reimbursements instead of just two times per year, so the line of credit needed will be lower ($1.5 million) than previously anticipated.”

Olson explained that the county will be 100 percent reimbursed from grant funding for the ARPA funds used to cash flow the project. He said that if all goes well, the project could be completed by the end of 2022. He stated that he would use the county ARPA funds only to pay the contractor – an estimated $750,000 per month – just to keep the accounting between VCC and the county simple.

Crawford County Director of Emergency Management Jim Hackett, who chairs the ARPA funds sub-committee, said that it would be best if the county had a contract or a memorandum of understanding with VCC “in case there would be an audit of use of the county’s ARPA funds.” Olson said that would not be a problem.

Aggressive timeline

Olson told the committee that he hopes to pursue a very aggressive timeline for the project, but that factors outside of their control, for instance weather, could impact the project. If all goes well, Olson said he hopes to complete the project in 2022.

“We have been working on this project since we submitted the grant application in July, and have secured almost all of the materials we’ll need,” Olson told the committee. “We’ll start with the project in Eagle Point near Ferryville, and then work our way south.”

Olson said VCC would begin notifications of customers after the first of the year. He said that hook up to the home would be done free of charge during construction, but that later there could be a charge for it. He requested a database of fire numbers located in the project area from the county, and also requested assistance from the county in importing their Global Information System (GIS) data into VCC’s system.

Olson said that his team would work closely with the county highway department, and also with town patrolmen. All of the work of laying the fiber optic cable will be done in the road right-of-ways.

“We will also need to work with the utility companies because they also have equipment in the road right-of-ways,” County Highway Commissioner Kyle Kozelka stated.

Olson said that he expected the engineering for the project to be completed by the end of January. At that time, the project plans would be shared with the county.

Other business

In other broadband business, the committee 

• agreed to authorize the purchase of the 3C Co-op’s Broadband Survey of Crawford County, conducted by UW-River Falls, for the amount of $2,900 from the county’s ARPA funds

• agreed to recommend transitioning the county’s ad hoc Broadband Study Group to an implementation committee to the Board of Supervisors, with Community Development Alternatives continuing in a coordinating role, but being paid $800 per month from ARPA funds to perform the work, which they have done up to this point on a voluntary basis

• heard that the Richland Grant Telephone Cooperative (RGTC), which received a grant to expand broadband into some areas of the eastern part of the county, required county support like VCC is receiving for the project to go forward. The amount being requested by RGTC out of the county’s ARPA funds is $450,000. Representatives of RGTC will attend the November 17 meeting of the Finance Committee to discuss their plans and needs.