County Commissioners discuss broadband expansion, road funding

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, March 18, 2023

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ST. JOSEPH — Everything from broadband to roads to county facility work were topics of discussion at Thursday’s Berrien County Board of Commissioner meetings. Commissioners heard a legislative update in the first meeting of the morning and then acted on a number of matters at the morning’s second meeting. 

Midwest Strategy legislative consultant Mike Krombeen updated commissioners on what’s going on in Lansing, talking primarily about roads and broadband. He said he doesn’t expect action on finding more funding for roads this year, but does think broadband expansion will continue to be a major focus. 

Krombeen said that while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer initially ran for office on a platform of fixing the roads, the needle hasn’t moved much on finding a long term solution. He said studies have come out about the possibility of establishing toll roads and addressing funding gaps with a change in the gas tax. 

“There are a lot more political hurdles outside of just an assessment that could put a toll road here or there,” he said. “I don’t know if any package on roads in general is going to come up or pass. I talked to legislative leaders and there’s not a lot of urgency when it comes to roads.” 

He noted that the studies estimate that the state is $1.8 billion short annually when it comes to funding the roads. Suggestions to fix that include increasing the gas tax in the current system, moving the gas tax from a per gallon to per dollar basis, having a mileage based user fee system and shifting the sales tax revenue from gas to roads. 

On broadband, Krombeen said that the state received 154 applications this week asking for $1.3 billion in broadband funding through the Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) program. The ROBIN program has $250 million available to give out. 

He said that applicants won’t know if their applications have been accepted until July. He added that those who aren’t funded will get another chance at funding at the end of the year when $1.8 billion in federal grant dollars will be available. 

Berrien County Administrator Brian Dissette and County Commissioner Teri Freehling said at least two area internet service providers, most likely Comcast and Midwest Energy, are believed to have submitted ROBIN applications to bring broadband service to much of the county.  

They said they hope the applications will get a favorable response from the state since many letters of support were submitted from area townships and other entities such as Lake Michigan College and anchor institutions. A full list of those submitting letters of support is on the BC Bit webpage on the county’s website. 

Krombeen said he thinks all the letters of support submitted with the Berrien County applications will put them in the top five percent of applications when it comes to community support. “I hope that will pay massive dividends and we will see massive investment in your area,” he said. 

He also made general comments about the governor’s proposed budget. He said Whitmer is calling for more investment when it comes to areas such as community development, housing, blight elimination, law enforcement training and revenue sharing. 

In action Thursday, commissioners signed a new contract with a Berrien Springs firm, Bacchiocchi Construction Services, for $32,400 to provide construction management services to the county. The county has had staffing issues that have hampered the execution of a number of building maintenance and infrastructure projects. 

County Commissioner Jim Curran said Buildings and Grounds Director Robert Ray told the administration committee that the new contract will be helpful in getting work done. Ray said that his department is still down when it comes to staffing and has two more people retiring soon. 

In other committee reports, Finance Committee Chair Mamie Yarbrough said the county board will be asked to extend the county’s contract with Co-Alliance for the purchase of gas and diesel fuel at a guaranteed price. The current contract expires May 10 and the county board will be asked to extend the contract six months to Nov. 11. 

She said locking in the prices for gas and diesel has helped the county road department streamline operations and insure that the fuel is delivered in a timely fashion. With the current contract, the county has purchased 9,341 gallons of gas and 63,000 gallons of diesel. 

In other action, commissioners approved a number of measures for the health department including a contract with Patagonia Health for electronic health records, accepting a grant for marijuana education and outreach, adding a medical assistant position and approving the environmental health services fee schedule.