Indiana County began outreach on a variety of topics Thursday night, with an open forum held online and at the concession area of S&T Bank Arena in White Township.
Originally, the White Township forum and those planned for later this month in East Wheatfield Township and Marion Center were advertised as ways to find out what county residents want to do with more than $16 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, what Commissioner Sherene Hess called a lifeline for the nation’s more than 3,000 counties.
“There is not enough money to do everything there,” conceded commissioner Robin Gorman.
However, they and fellow Commissioner R. Michael Keith are researching the needs, first among some 20 county agencies, from the tourist office to IndiGO (Indiana County Transit Authority) to ICCAP (Indiana County Community Action Program). .
After that, Gorman said, “if there was a lack of funding” given to the 38 municipalities, the county could supplement local needs.
But another topic was broadband expansion in rural Indiana County.
“We are a model for broadband expansion,” Hess said.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, R. Michael Keith, said broadband expansion could be thought of as one thinks of other forms of infrastructure, such as water pipes.
“We’re laying the groundwork,” Keith said. After that, independent service providers will relay it.
Indiana County Office of Planning and Development Executive Director Byron G. Stauffer Jr. acknowledged affordability was a concern.
For example, Starlink, one of the likely providers, charges $599 upfront and $110 per month to download 100-200 megabits and upload 20-30 megabits.
“I would love my Comcast bill to be this cheap,” Ernest Mayor Sandra Waldenville observed. ” This is not the case. How much of my bill will make it affordable for someone else? »
“At the end of the day, it will be complex,” Stauffer said.
Stauffer opened his portion of the forum by explaining how the county has prepared for the launch of a next wave of rural broadband with the results of a 2020 Vertical Asset Study.
According to a document given to those present, $4.5 million is ready to be deployed on impending RFPs, and an additional $10 million in submitted grants are also available.
The county has already used $2 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to extend 85 miles of fiber optic lines and installed 10 major wireless “hotspots” on an emergency communications system. 911 fiber and tower already built.
It uses Community Development Block Grant-CARES Act funding to expand broadband service in communities such as Plumville, Smicksburg, and West and South Mahoning Townships.
And it has $1.5 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission to roll out more than 100 miles of fiber and to establish eight wireless telecommunications sites.
The forum attracted just a dozen residents, including the mayors of Ernest and Homer City and White Township Manager Chris Anderson, as well as some who phoned in to the forum’s online stream.
It was an opportunity to praise the merits of the Indiana County Speaks Up 2022! Survey provided by the Department of Social Services and the County Children’s Advisory Board.
This can be done in hard copy available from the Department of Social Services by calling (724) 463-8200 (extensions 3, 4, or 8), or online at www.32SpeaksUp.com.
The county may also update a comprehensive “Where We Live” plan from 2012 and/or a 30-year-old economic development plan.
Keith said the county has completed an assessment of its facilities. Among other things, he said some renovations might be needed.
He said the county jail may only be 15 years old, but with continued use “there are some updates needed there.”
Keith added: “we have to follow what we have.” And the chairman of the board of commissioners also said the county is looking for ways to cut a budget of more than $46 million.
Noting that “health care is a huge cost to our county,” Keith said the county needed to take a risk on a fully self-insured program — and “we’re seeing savings there.”
Homer City Mayor Arlene Wanatosky questioned whether the county’s savings would “fall back to the municipalities.” Keith said there was no link between county and municipal budgets.
Stauffer explained how various stakeholders, at the county level as well as in entities such as the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce and Indiana University in Pennsylvania, have worked together in the Center for Economic Operations.
Waldenville said, “In my experience, government doesn’t create jobs.” But Hess said the government can smooth the way, and Gorman said it can facilitate an environment that can attract jobs.
Keith said the Indiana County Development Corporation and the Indiana County Development Corporation produced a ready-made development that was used by Urban Outfitters in Windy Ridge Park.
The next county forum will be on Monday from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Armagh & East Wheatfield Volunteer Fire Company room and will also be online and in person.
However, the third forum, April 27 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in the Marion Center Community Hall, will take place in person only, as the online service is not available.