Two weeks ago, when Gov. Jim Justice announced his billion-dollar broadband plan, two dozen people stood behind him, shoulder to shoulder. Not one of them represented the local governments that Justice is counting on to chip in a big chunk of that money.
The governor and his team want counties and cities from across West Virginia to contribute at least $100 million of American Rescue Plan money to the broadband effort. But some local leaders now say they have been left in the dark about Justice’s plan, and the state’s expectation that they will help fund it.
“I heard [about the plan] at the same time everybody else did,” said Jennifer Piercy, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia. “We’re a key stakeholder, and we should be part of that conversation.”
Piercy wants to make sure they get a seat at the table as plans are developed, especially with something as important as broadband.
“We’ve only got one shot at this, and it’s a lot of money, and this could make a huge difference in the lives of West Virginians,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s done correctly.”
When Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett learned about the plan announced two weeks ago, he was shocked.
“It said it would involve local efforts,” he said. “But, to my knowledge, certainly no one called me.”
Cindy Whetsell, Lewis County administrator and director of the Lewis County Economic Development Authority, said county officials haven’t discussed how to use their American Rescue Plan funds. They’re waiting for the final spending guidance to be released. And she said she hadn’t heard about the $100 million local expectation.
“I do think conversations alluding to utilization of funds that are not under your control should take place with the stakeholders,” Whetsell said.
Nitro Mayor David Casebolt said his city would also be interested in working with the state on broadband projects, but hadn’t had any discussions with the state about it.
“We have had zero communication with the state on how the cities are to intertwine [with] this program,” he said. “We have no idea of how we fit in this.”
‘The crux of the matter’
Justice’s plan includes a combination of funds from federal, state and local governments.
State Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael said a focus of the upcoming broadband projects is coordinating with local governments so there’s no overlapping builds and all the money involved is used to its greatest extent.
“It’s the crux of the matter,” he said. “Local governments know their constituents the best and their areas the best.”
Vic Sprouse, broadband and economic development specialist for the West Virginia Department of Economic Development, said state officials try to spread the word about informational webinars and other discussions around broadband efforts.
“And so, while you can always do a better job communicating, we feel that we push out [and try] to over communicate to folks,” Sprouse said. “So it’s disappointing if a county felt like they didn’t hear.”
Carmichael said while the announcement was made to counties and cities at the same time as everyone else, the broadband programs that include local governments should have been known by local leaders in advance. He said if anyone wants to know more, they can go to the website, listen in to future webinars his department hosts or give his team a call.
“We want to be able to help provide guidance and direction and help them design their networks, submit their plans, refine those plans, and then hit the most number of citizens we can with new internet service, because the entire focus of this program is to serve those who are unserved,” Carmichael said.
Piercy hopes if her organization and counties push, they can partner with the state and get their questions answered. The County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia recently created a broadband caucus to help spread information to association members and to help create that conversation.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility to keep pushing,” she said. “We have to keep making them aware that we’re here. And that we need to be a part of the conversation.”
She said they’re attending webinars over the next couple of weeks held by the Department of Economic Development that might clear up remaining confusion.
But Puckett points out, “We wouldn’t have to have that meeting next week if we all knew from the start. I guess that’s my frustration.”
Some county leaders are not as frustrated. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said while it might be unusual to not have some of the information about the planned state-local government partnerships, so is the money itself.
“It’s no secret that this money was directly allocated to local governments. So they know that cities and counties throughout the state have directly received ARP money and have wide discretion with it,” he said. “So for that reason, yeah, it’s a little unusual, but it’s an unusual program.”