Lincoln Co. Board launches broadband grant application

IVANHOE — The Lincoln County Board gave a green light Tuesday to a county-wide grant application aimed at funding for broadband Internet access.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved a grant application to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for a total of $10.5 million. All except $2 million would come from outside funding sources. The county would issue bonds for its matching share.

The grant package will expand upon a plan for a broadband proposal developed by a South Dakota based consultant for the Hendricks area telecommunications exchange. The same consultant will incorporate the rest of the county into a larger grant request.

“It made sense to work together toward one application,” said Vince Robinson, president of the Ivanhoe-based Development Services Inc. consulting service. “That will show that as a county we’re taking a unified approach. We won’t be in a situation where two different applications would compete.”

The total grant amount will be influenced by the level of statewide competition for broadband funding. It will also depend on how much the Minnesota State Legislature allocates.

Robinson said the Minnesota House and Gov. Tim Walz have both offered a funding proposal of $70 million spread out over two years. The Minnesota Senate has countered with a proposal for $30 million in the first year of the biennium, with the possibility of more funding in the second year.

“We’re can be fairly certain it won’t drop below the Senate’s version,” he said. “There’s a good possibility it might go up. It’s one part of the overall state budget negotiation process.”

During discussion prior to approval, Commissioner Joe Drietz asked if grant evaluators will recognize the level of commitment Lincoln County would make by offering up to $2 million in matching funds.

“It’s important that they know how much we’re involved,” Drietz said. “It should improve our chances of funding if there’s awareness of the local public interest and our willingness to make broadband a high priority.”

Robinson responded that DEED evaluators will see the grant proposal as a substantial commitment from Lincoln County. Another factor that should work in favor of the grant application is that the county is within one of the most underserved rural areas of Minnesota.

The legislative conference committee process is expected to iron out differences in broadband funding bills by the end of May unless lawmakers decide to extend the process with a special session.

“We know that there will almost definitely be funding awarded later this year,” Robinson said. “The window to apply will be narrow, about 60 days. Our application will be ready soon enough to meet the timeframe.”

The board also voted to approve an application for septic tank replacement incentive funds totaling $500,000 from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The 2019 application is different from past septic tank incentives, which fell under the umbrella of the statewide Agricultural Best Management Practices loan program. Lincoln County Environmental Officer Robert Olsen told commissioners that septic tank incentives now stand alone, which means dollars allocated will go only toward septic tank replacements.

He added that the number of outdated Lincoln County septic tanks in need of replacement is less than a third of what existed when he began to work with the state’s loan support.

“It eases some of the cost burden for landowners,” Olsen said. “It’s something they want to do, but it’s usually a big expense. I’ve never had a serious objection from a rural property owner. They know it has to be done and appreciate that there’s some funding assistance.”

In other environmental business, a group of Lake Benton city officials met with commissioners to voice concerns about inconsistent recycling service from Waste Management Services.

In discussion it was noted that collectors have at times failed to pick up recyclables from both dumpster sites and curbside containers. Some customers were consistently missed throughout most of the winter of 2018-19.

“We’ve had situations where bins filled up and cardboard had to be placed next to them,” said Lake Benton Mayor Bob Worth. “Then we’ve had it blown around by the wind. We can understand delays because of the weather. Otherwise it should be more reliable.”

Waste Management serves all five incorporated towns in the county. Olsen said collection issues have been due to both winter weather and turnover in drivers since new drivers usually go through a learning curve for mastering collection routes.

He told the board that the county’s contract with Waste Management includes the option to withhold up to 25 percent of a contract payment at no interest penalty until a complaint for inadequate service is resolved. None of the five commissioners made a motion to withhold payment, but board members emphasized the need to resolve collection issues in ways that make sure all recyclables placed out for haulers are handled as intended.

“It’s important to continue bringing the concerns to their attention,” said Commissioner Mic VanDevere. “It’s a concern that needs to be addressed. I’d like to see more progress.”

Olsen said Waste Management has served as the county’s recycling hauler for 10 years. It was the low bidder by a significant margin in the last bid process.

As part of Lincoln County Highway Engineer Joe Wilson’s report, VanDevere asked about long range planning for the county’s three highway department satellite garages in Tyler, Lake Benton and Hendricks.

In multi-county meetings, he said commissioners from other counties have talked about consolidating garages staffed only by one crew member. It’s considered an option because of 21st century equipment advancements and the need to save on building expenses.

“I can understand why they’re looking into it if they have to decide whether to spend a high amount of money to repair or replace older garages,” VanDevere said. “We might at some point have to consider the possibility of providing good service with just the main office.”

Wilson and board members agreed that a consolidation would only be looked at as an option if there’s a major building cost or staff retirements. Wilson noted that all three Lincoln County garages are staffed by two technicians. He added that some counties have as many as nine garages to consider rather than just three.

He recommended that any proposed changes involve an evaluation of road-related service for the rural public as well as cost issues.

“After we lost the state DOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) shop in Lake Benton, Highway 14 plowing has never been the same,” said Commissioner Corey Sik. “I’d want to seriously examine what we’d lose in terms of public service. One option I’d want to explore would be at least placing staff at the garages seasonally for snowplowing in the winter.”