Local officials discuss broadband quest with state legislators
December 10, 2020
On Tuesday, Wahkiakum County Commissioners invited new and old actors from the Washington State Legislative District 19 to a workshop with the Wahkiakum PUD Commissioners so they could hear first hand about the Wahkiakum broadband improvement project and the need for funding.
In attendance from District 19 were Representative Jim Walsh, Representative-Elect Joel McEntire, and Senator-Elect Jeff Wilson.
Wahkiakum PUD Commissioner Gene Healy gave an overview of the broadband project, which began about two and a half years ago when “representatives, electeds, and concerned citizens” formed the Wahkiakum Broadband Action Committee, to see if improving broadband in eastern Wahkiakum County was an achievable goal.
“After several meetings with industry experts, and upon suggestion from Janea Delk, the program director at the Community Economic Revitalization Board, we applied for a CERB feasibility study grant,” Healy said.
Healy said the Wahkiakum PUD, which was chosen to be the lead agency, applied for and received a $50,000 grant, with a $16,667 matching fund provided by Wahkiakum County. The PUD then engaged Noanet to conduct a feasibility study, which when concluded, made it obvious to all involved that “there was a need and desire for improved broadband.”
The PUD met with state and federal agencies, Healy said, and eventually, an application was made to the Public Works Board at the Department of Commerce.
“We worked with Shelley Westall and staff, and they were really helpful and knowledgable on the issue,” Healy said.
The application led to an award offer of $800,000 in grant money plus a $4 million loan from PWB.
“After a lot of study and hand wringing and consultation with our fellow groups around the county, we opted to decline the funding package,” Healy said. "It’s impractical for a small community like ours and a small PUD to incur that kind of debt.”
The need still exists, he told the representatives, and the search for funding sources that make sense will continue.
“We need legislative help on this issue,” Healy said. “The round we applied for had about $17 million available for about $75 million in requests. This needs to change if we are truly serious about improving rural broadband capabilities in this state.”
Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren asked if there was anything the representatives of Legislative District 19 could do to help, or if they knew of any other programs that could help.
Repesentative Jim Walsh encouraged the PUD to continue talking to Janea Delk at CERB.
“There is more money flowing through the system all the time and some of it is earmarked specifically for broadband,” he said.
Walsh also suggested CARES Act 2 money, which he said was targeted for broadband build up, and spoke of a “tug of war” between CERB and PWB in Olympia as they competed for the funding and handling of broadband projects.
“The ground game is changing all the time and that federal money either takes the form as 100 percent grant or larger grant with a relatively smaller loan, and as with PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, some of these loans are forgivable. You have to jump through hoops to get them forgiven, but I think that this county and the Wahkiakum PUD is exactly the kind of entity that would qualify for the larger grants and/or forgivable loans,” Walsh said.