Sherburne County eyes options on federal funds totaling $19M | Elk River Star News

Investing in broadband, offering business relief among items under consideration

Sherburne County expects to get nearly $19 million from the American Rescue Plan Act and recently received guidance from the federal government on how that money could be used.

The ARPA is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The act is intended to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including the public health and economic impacts, according to the National Association of Counties.

Investing in broadband infrastructure is one allowable use of the ARPA money. While no decisions have yet been made by the county board on the matter, some commissioners have expressed interest in improving access to reliable high-speed internet in the county.

Sherburne County is in the midst of surveying residents and businesses to assess the current state of broadband internet in the county. The surveys are designed to measure the broadband speeds that residents and businesses receive and to collect feedback from them about what they would like to see in the future.

In an ARPA update to the County Board on Tuesday, Assistant County Administrator Dan Weber said more than 650 online surveys were opened in the first week and about 350 were completed. Only a handful of businesses have responded, however, and Weber asked commissioners to alert their business constituents. Find the business survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/XRFS5HQ and the residential survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/XRRTCGD. Deadline to complete the survey is May 31.

The County Board will hear more about broadband on June 15, when Finley Engineering leads a workshop session on the topic.

Relief for businesses hard hit by the fallout from COVID-19 could be another use of the ARPA money. Weber told the board that he still gets a couple of calls a week from businesses wondering if there are any relief programs available. He asked commissioners if there was interest in a business relief program.

“If relief is needed and they can demonstrate the need, I would have difficulty saying ‘no, it’s over,’” Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said.

Commissioner Tim Dolan said he would tend to agree, but said this program may look a little different from previous ones.

Weber agreed, saying they could target the relief program to industries most hard-hit by COVID-19.

Commissioner Lisa Fobbe said she wants the county to be selective and, if there is still a need, figure out who got missed by the earlier relief programs.

Beyond business relief, she said she really wants to focus on broadband and workforce development.

“We’ve got an opportunity we’ve never had,” she said of the influx of ARPA money.

Dolan said other entities are also getting ARPA money and he’d want to make sure anything the county would offer does not overlap with other business relief programs.

“It’s weird to say, but there’s going to be a lot of money flying around for different things,” he added.

Board Chair Raeanne Danielowski said she agrees with hitting the most-needed areas for businesses in a relief program, and then concentrating on broadband.

“We really need to focus on getting our broadband,” she said. “It’s like Commissioner Fobbe said, this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to really get something strong in broadband that will take us into the future.”

Weber said they could put together a business relief proposal, and bring it back to the County Board for review.

Meanwhile, other potential uses of the ARPA money could include extension of an existing Entrepreneur Lab that offers technical business assistance and putting money into a first-time homebuyers program.

Additional potential uses could include reimbursement of county costs for COVID-related expenses and payroll costs, continued mitigation needs such as adding glass dividers at service counters in the courts wing, replacing county revenue lost due to COVID-19, working with Health and Human Services staff on potential community support programs and addressing potential county staffing needs.

County Attorney Kathy Heaney said they were operational during the pandemic, but one issue is the backlog of cases. She said there are 145 trial settings — which is when the court assigns a date that a trial is set to begin — between now and Nov. 1. Pre-COVID, the Sherburne County Attorney’s Office would try between 12 to 18 jury trials a year. Additionally, felonies were up 14% between 2019 and 2020 and they are handling a number of high-profile cases, she said.

Health and Human Services Director Amanda Larson also outlined some of the workload challenges facing her staff.

Sherburne County is slated to get an $18,887,342 ARPA allocation — half of it in 2021 and half in 2022. Allowable uses of the money include:

•Support public health response: Fund COVID-19 mitigation efforts, medical expenses, behavioral healthcare and certain public health and safety staff.

•Replace public sector revenue loss: Use funds to provide government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue experienced due to the pandemic.

•Water and sewer infrastructure: Make necessary investments to improve access to clean drinking water and invest in wastewater and storm water infrastructure.

•Address negative economic impacts: Respond to economic harms to workers, families, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector.

•Premium pay for essential workers: Offer additional support to those who have and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors.

•Broadband infrastructure: Make necessary investments to provide unserved or underserved locations with new or expanded broadband access.