County takes needed steps to continue broadband expansion
Armed with constitutional approval to invest federal COVID-19 relief funds into the expansion of broadband services, Franklin County Probate Judge Barry Moore joined officials from other counties to work on a model program to enhance internet access at the local level.
Several counties participating in the Investing in Alabama Counties program, a unique service of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, have established broadband expansion as a priority expenditure from their American Rescue Plan Act funding. In the aftermath of the ratification of constitutional amendment 2 on the November ballot, those counties – including Franklin – now have the necessary constitutional authorization to begin their broadband programs.
“I am grateful for the passage of amendment 2 and was honored to be part of the planning session,” Moore said following the meeting in Montgomery. “We worked on a draft plan to ensure accountability and transparency in our program while utilizing much of our ARPA funding to jumpstart investments in Franklin County.
“Affordable and reliable broadband service is the key to economic growth in our community,” he added. “That is why our commission has identified expansion as the No. 1 priority of our ARPA dollars.”
Franklin is among a handful of counties that have made broadband a priority, but it needed the authority to bypass language in Alabama’s constitution that prohibits the granting of a “thing of value” to a person or an entity.
“We recognize that some people have grown impatient over the past few months,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the ACCA, “but counties simply could not expend this federal money in violation of our state’s constitution.
“With that roadblock cleared, we are focused on moving broadband projects ahead as quickly as possible.”
Brasfield explained the group discussed options for ensuring broadband grant recipients focus their efforts on the “unserved” and “underserved” areas of each county; establishing accountability measures to test broadband speed after the projects are completed; and exploring possible alternative delivery methods that might be more affordable in some counties.
He said the group will get back together in about a month to evaluate the draft application and contract documents.
“We are going to move as quickly as possible,” Brasfield said, “but it is also important that we utilize taxpayers’ dollars in the most responsible and effective manner. Our discussions were very productive, and we now have a roadmap for moving forward.
“Getting everyone around a table and hearing each county’s story was very beneficial.”
The Investing in Alabama Counties program was established by the ACCA to assist county governments with the implementation of programs to enhance the community while also fully complying with the rigid requirements of the ARPA rules and requirements. Some 41 county governments from all corners of the state are participants in the program, which is the only one of its kind in the nation.
Franklin and every county and city receiving ARPA funds have until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate the funds and until Dec. 31, 2026, to complete the projects.