By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: June 9, 2018 | 1:20 p.m.
Broadband internet dominates conversation among local leaders
MCKENNEY – The Robert and Betty Ragsdale Community Center in the Town of McKenney turned one-year-old early last month and, in the shadow of the building’s first anniversary, the facility would host a diverse roster of community leaders from over a dozen localities as the Virginia Association of Counties hosted one of their regional meetings in the small town just of Interstate 85.
Members of the association’s Region 1, made up of Accomack, Isle of Wight, Northampton, Prince George, Southampton, Surry and Sussex, and Region 4, comprised of Amelia, Brunswick, Charlotte, Dinwiddie, Greensville, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, and Prince Edward, made their way to the community center last Wednesday evening, with some making a stop at the Dairy Freeze just off U.S. Route 1 for a sweet treat, to discuss a variety of topics, focused primarily on what each communities’ priorities were, be it economic or workforce development, state funding for initiatives, and other important topics as members of VACo’s leadership, including Executive Director Dean Lynch took copious notes that would be used to develop the association’s annual legislative priorities ahead of the 2019 General Assembly session.
“We’re here to discuss the issues that affect all of our different communities,” Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors Chairman Dr. Mark Moore remarked. “Each one of us has a variety of issues that we are trying to work together to solve and that is why we have regional meetings like this to try figure exactly what those priorities are and what are some things that we can solve together, not individually.”
Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Moore delivers opening remarks at the VACo Region 1 and 4 meeting held in McKenney last week. (Michael Campbell)
Last Wednesday’s meeting was one of the first where two regions joined together to hold a meeting and throughout the two-hour gathering, two topics were routinely brought up as being critically important to the 16 communities represented at the regional summit, broadband internet expansion, infrastructure needs, particularly water and sewer, and other capital needs.
Of the communities in attendance, broadband expansion was brought up by a majority of local leaders, including Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex, and Surry as each of the localities are in the midst of their own projects to help expand internet services to rural residents.
Prince George County, represented by Vice Chairman Donald Hunter, Supervisors TJ Webb and Marlene Waymack, County Administrator Percy Ashcraft and Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke, has partnered with Prince George Electric Cooperative by providing a $1 million grant to the cooperative to help fund their fiber-to-the-home project which will bring 500 new customers online by July of 2021. As of their most recent update, PGEC Enterprises, the subsidiary of the cooperative that provides internet service the customers said they have brought over 120 new customers online and remain confident they will reach their 500 customer benchmark will before the mid-year 2021 deadline.
Additionally, Sussex County is also working with PGEC Enterprises on broadband expansion as a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission provided over $1 million to help expand similar broadband internet service to residents in the county. PGEC Enterprises has also approached Surry County proposing a partnership in a similar fashion to their ongoing agreement with Prince George County, offering to bring internet service into the county through their fiber-to-the-home project with the same $1 million investment request to Prince George. If that funding isn’t provided, the cooperative explained that it would mean Surry County wouldn’t be able to be brought online as quickly as some of the other communities they are in the midst of connecting.
No decision has been made on whether the county will move forward on partnering with PGEC Enterprises as they continue to work to bring its citizens online with SCS Broadband through a wireless internet service project that was supposed to be completed in the fall of 2017 but has since been pushed back to the spring and, as of this month, services have yet to be deployed in Surry County. Both Surry Board of Supervisors Chairman John Seward, who also serves as president of VACo’s Region 1, and Supervisor Judy Lyttle, a past-president of VACo, both spoke to the need to get broadband internet in Surry County.
Dinwiddie, serving as the host for the regional meetings, offered their own suggestions to those communities seeking broadband expansion in their localities, using the county’s own process as a guidepost. Supervisor Harrison Moody, who also services as a representative on the National Association of Counties, suggested localities look at collaborative and regional efforts to get funding for broadband expansion projects.
Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill talks with fellow leaders from across 16 counties during last week’s meeting, which provided valuable time to share ideas and collaborate on future projects. (Michael Campbell)
“If you can work together with different counties and if you are rural, according to the Census, you can possibly get grants to help you get broadband,” Moody explained, referring to the successful grant the county received from the Tobacco Commission for broadband expansion, which will see Dinwiddie partnering with neighboring Amelia on the project to bring increased internet access to both communities, while continuing to eye ways to expand that service beyond the scope of the project, which will likely be some form of wireless-based services.
While internet access dominated discussions at the meeting, Prince George County brought up a topic that has been talked about in great detail for a number of months and the past year in the community, school construction. County Administrator Ashcraft asked members of VACo to consider talking to state leaders in Richmond about ways to help localities build new schools in the communities without passing along a vast majority of the costs to the localities.
“The General Assembly hasn’t really wanted to pick up this issue,” Ashcraft remarked. “This isn’t a new subject as I know I have raised this in other meetings privately and publicly.”
Prince George County is in the midst of planning for the construction of at least one new elementary school to replace one of two aging, open-air facilities. During the budget building process this year, the price tag for that school was estimated to be close to $30 million, which led to a five-cent real estate tax increase being considered to help finance the construction of the new facility. Following additional research and word from the Prince George School Board that showed they were taking a slower approach to building the school, with significant spending on the project not occurring during the upcoming fiscal year, the tax increase was scrapped.
During his remarks, Ashcraft suggested VACo and the Commonwealth look at other states as models of what can be done through the creation of a school building authority.
“The development of a school building authority would help generate bonds and allow everyone to participate in the Commonwealth,” he said. “There are models out there, but it is about members having the wherewithal to do that.”
Dinwiddie Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Rayfield Vines, III leads Surry Supervisor Judy Lyttle and other area government leaders on a tour of the Robert and Betty Ragsdale Community Center. (Michael Campbell)
Other states, including West Virginia and Massachusetts, have similar school building authorities. For example, in Massachusetts, their school building authority has made over $13.1 billion in payments to cities, towns, and school districts for school construction projects and has taken part in or is actively working on over 600 projects across the authority’s six-region area in the state since its inception in 2004. Between 2014 and 2015, the authority broke ground on over 20 projects and cut ribbons at 33 others, with 127 of 143 projects either reaching closeout or have been completed.
For Ashcraft, Wednesday’s meeting was about sharing ideas and interfacing with communities about topics affecting their constituents while gathering insight from them about topics impacting residents locally.
“We are all reacting to what the General Assembly doing and, to a lesser extent, what the Federal government is doing so when you are able to sit and talk to people or listen to how they are handling situations, whether it be education, road issues, and even Medicaid expansion is important,” he said. “Sharing ideas and information can help you as you’re doing work in your county.”
Along with those topics, other leaders brought up the need for additional state funding in the areas of K-12 education and mental health, equal taxing authority across towns and counties, and the return of payments in lieu of taxes from the Commonwealth for state prisons in specific communities, a topic that has been of high importance to Sussex County for a number of years as the home of Sussex I and II state prisons and the ceasing of those payments having a direct impact on the county’s budget.
The Virginia Association of Counties is expected to take all of the topics brought up by leaders at the meeting and present them to various steering committees, which will help vet the concerns and ideas and potentially craft official positions for VACo to include in their annual legislative priorities, which are used to help guide state leaders to issues that are of importance to VACo’s member communities during the upcoming General Assembly session in early 2019.