Pamela Tokar-Ickes Gerald Walker Colleen Dawson

Pamela Tokar-Ickes, Gerald Walker and Colleen Dawson (from left)

The COVID-19 outbreak has magnified troubles many rural areas face without high-speed broadband.

With more than $6.6 million in federal CARES Act relief funds allocated to Somerset County, officials said Tuesday they plan to use half of the total toward their broadband initiative, which has been a top goal for years.

“With kids learning remotely and businesses at home ... (COVID-19) is bringing this need to the forefront,” Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said, describing the opportunity as a “silver lining” to the otherwise problematic coronavirus pandemic.

Through an effort led by Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development, Somerset joined seven other counties last year to conduct a regional study that surveyed thousands of residents and businesses in areas where reliable internet is lacking. The group is expected to release the results in the fall.

President Commissioner Gerald Walker said extending high-speed coverage to 85% of the county is expected to cost more than $8 million.

Board members said their $3.5 million would go a long way toward that.

With state and federal agencies recognizing how important it is to increase internet availability, there are a growing number of other funding sources dedicating money for projects such as Somerset’s, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Commissioner Colleen Dawson said.

The only issue is that the county must spend its CARES Act money by December, board members said, while the regional wireless project was viewed several years down the road.

Walker said businesses in the county have already talked about smaller-scale high-speed internet projects and a southern Somerset County group is discussing adding fiber optics lines – seen as “shovel ready” partial solutions toward the larger goal.

“There are so many avenues we can go down,” Dawson said.

The county outlined its application for spending its CARES ACT stimulus funding Tuesday, saying  another $2.3 million would be used to cover the county’s COVID-19 response, planning and outreach costs – which includes remote workforce technology upgrades, constituent communication initiatives and creating quarantine space at the county jail.

A portion of that money will also cover enhanced 911 dispatch back-up capabilities, the board said.

Also:

• $10,000 will reimburse personal protective equipment purchases.

• $100,000 will help local municipalities cover their emergency response and planning costs.

• $500,000 will be used for a county-level small business grant program, which the board said will serve as a fallback for businesses whose applications for state CARES Act funds aren’t approved.

The state money, being processed and allocated through The Progress Fund, ranges from $5,000 to $50,000 for qualified businesses.

Businesses earning less than $1 million and with fewer than 25 employees who have been missed by other COVID-19 stimulus programs can apply. 

The county funding, meanwhile, can be awarded at up to $5,000 per qualified applicant, county officials said.

Dawson said businesses can apply for support from both funds at www.progressfund.org.

The county is also setting aside $265,000 for Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Disorder Treatment. Walker said support for virtual telehealth services are one target.

As permitted through the grant program’s guidelines, the county is also designating $132,000 – or 2%  – to cover grant administration costs.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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