Schuylkill County Commissioners on Wednesday approved, on a split vote, an ordinance that sees the county government enter into two bond agreements totaling up to $6.11 million for something they’ve been led to believe and is being sold as a “broadband project”.
But nothing is as it seems.
In fact, when this “broadband project” was first bandied about at the Schuylkill County Courthouse earlier this year, we heard from several readers who believed the County was working to expand broadband internet service in under-served areas.
They had every reason to believe that was true. If you listened to the two Schuylkill County Commissioners who backed the plan and on Wednesday voted to enter into these bond agreements, even they believe it.
And based on what they said in approving the bond ordinance, they still believe it. Or, they make like they believe it in order to keep the heat off them.
The Schuylkill County “Broadband Project” Gets Funded with $6.11M Bonds
When Commissioners Boots Hetherington and George Halcovage voted to approve the ordinance Wednesday, they repeated a lot of the same lines they said earlier this year when the County first approved this project (more on that in a moment).
They talked about the need for broadband for kids doing virtual schooling. And it’s needed for the adults working from home, too.
The only trouble is, the “Broadband Project” they’ve agreed to finance to the tune of $6.11 million accomplishes none of those things directly or even soon. Instead, what they entered into was an agreement to purchase a lot of equipment, and site upgrades, and tech support, to upgrade the County’s 9-1-1 system to use broadband technology.
Those two Commissioners must have been as mystified by the municipal-ese/wireless tech jargon included in the ordinance as we were. They agreed to finance:
- The “planning, design, purchase, acquisition, construction, repair, replacement, renovation, reconfiguration and improvement, and related appurtenances, and suitable fixtures, furnishings and equipment therefor, as applicable of 9-1-1/microwave communication/broadband project for public safety within the county.
Essentially, it’s as we stated above: a really expensive upgrade to the County 9-1-1 system.
But that’s not what they celebrated on Wednesday. In voting in favor of entering into the bond agreements, Hetherington voted, “Most definitely, yes.”
“I think this is the right time to do this and the bond is the way to get it done,” Hetherington added. “This is a big step for all of us.”
Halcovage, who also voted in favor of the bond measure, said, “I believe it’s a project, as we look forward to the future of Schuylkill County is extremely important.”
He went on to talk about the County’s future ability to “mitigate the Digital Divide” for rural areas of Schuylkill County.
But the project, as it’s written for the public to see, does none of that directly or immediately.
All they’re celebrating is putting the County into a payment plan for a project we didn’t need until found money was available. And then when the found money wasn’t available, they still said it was needed but needed, largely, for other purposes than the project accomplishes, if it’s completed.
The key phrase in that word salad they called an ordinance and project description comes near the end: “public safety”.
Schuylkill County is allegedly doing this upgrade to improve public safety via the 9-1-1 system upgrades. However, since the public was told very little about this project through the course of the year, we weren’t sure if there was a problem with the 9-1-1 system as it stands now.
One part of this “Broadband Project” includes the purchase of 6 mobile dispatch units for the 9-1-1 center, in the event the headquarters in downtown Pottsville is rendered useless due to COVID or some other emergency.
Those are some big what-ifs that weren’t proven to be a imminent or even remote risk. But if they pitched the project as a “public safety” project, the County believed it could use some (or most) of its CARES Act funding to purchase it outright.
So, they did. At least, initially.
The “CARES Act Money”
Now, at this point, you’re likely wondering to yourself, “Self, I thought they already bought all this 9-1-1 equipment earlier this year when they were blowing through the CARES Act money.”
Well, the Commissioners definitely did approve about $6 million in purchases related to upgrading the 9-1-1 system. And they definitely said they were going to use the “CARES Act money” to fund it.
And that’s why this project was pitched as a “public safety” project. If you call it that, it’s somehow eligible for funding via CARES Act.
But then, the County – at budget prep time (now) – realized it was in the hole by a couple million bucks and so it decided to fill that hole by using the … you guessed it, CARES Act money it didn’t give to small businesses, non-profit organizations, and municipalities, among others.
In delivering his dissenting vote on Wednesday, Commissioner Gary Hess noted the inconsistencies in the project planning (or at least its public presentation) and now its timeline.
Since it was a “public safety” project, this project, as it was approved earlier this year with CARES Act money, was supposed to complete by the end of the year. That way it could actually potentially improve public safety in the slight chance it were needed in the pandemic response.
Hess said that the County knew it would have budget troubles related to the pandemic and that we should have looked into this “broadband project” more before entering into any agreements. He said this money, instead of going to the project, could have gone toward more small businesses, etc.
With the hole filled, they still had those motions approved earlier this year to agree to buy all this 9-1-1 equipment and services. So, it turned to the bonds.
“We are putting it on the people to pay for this project,” Hess said. “Can you afford it?”
He added that the project, at least initially, requires a $300,000 annual maintenance fee that’s also coming out of the taxpayer’s hide. Hess also called out the 9-1-1 department for failing to complete expensive projects in the past, including a narrow-banding project.
“Our focus should be on completing these before moving on to another,” he said.
While the “Broadband Project” is still being labeled as a “public safety” project, that’s turned into a pitch the county has failed to yet make. It’s also being billed as a “Broadband Project” and we’ve already noted how misleading that’s become. The two guys who OK’d it going forward remain as confused by it as the public.
“Down the Line”
Halcovage took exception with Hess’ question on whether or not we could afford this “broadband project” and asked rhetorically, “Can you not afford it?”
He meant, “Can you not afford” giving people access to broadband technology? But in doing so, basically admitted that the “broadband” part of this project that got the public interested in it for potentially their improvement isn’t a promise.
Halcovage kept using the phrase “down the line.”
“This project, down the line, is one that is going to assist, down the line, all the citizens of the county,” Halcovage responded. “We’re dealing with school districts that do not have internet access at their homes. We also look at those people who are now working from home.”
Halcovage said the County discussed this project with the Schuylkill Intermediate Unit about its potential benefit to school districts and got its approval.
But neither local schools or work-from-home professionals get any benefit from this “broadband project” as it’s spelled out before us. This is a 9-1-1 project that’s being cloaked as a “broadband project” in order to smooth over any confusion the public may have.
While it may be true that the technology we’re purchasing with the bond money could help improve broadband access locally, there are no guarantees that’s what it’ll be used for. And based on what Hess referenced in his comments, there are no guarantees the project will even be completed.
And if there were never a pandemic, the County likely wouldn’t have thought of entering into any agreement to upgrade the 9-1-1 system But who is that says you never let a crisis go to waste?
Oh yeah, on Wednesday, it was Hetherington. In defending these bond issues to pay for a project we never would have paid for if not for the cover provided by the pandemic and the need to improve “public safety” he said, “Timing is always everything. Not taking advantage of the opportunity would be irresponsible.”
But the opportunity was only created by the pandemic and that created the CARES Act money that was supposed to fund this project. Now, it’s not and the County will have to foot the bill for this for years.
READ OUR PREVIOUS COVERAGE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS PROJECT V1.0:
- Schuylkill County Agrees to Spend $855K More on 9-1-1 Project
- Schuylkill Commissioners Divided But Approve Spending $2.8M More on County 9-1-1
- Schuylkill County Using $2.197 Million in CARES Money for Backup 9-1-1 in Case of COVID