BERRYVILLE — The Clarke County Board of Supervisors on Monday voted unanimously to accept more than $2.8 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds.
Now comes the hard part: Determining how the money should be spent.
Clarke County is to receive $2,839,569 from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, established under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed into on March 11.
The ARPA money is on top of roughly $2.6 million the county previously obtained through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to put toward pandemic control and response expenses. The latter is largely being spent on public safety needs and helping households and small businesses recover from economic setbacks they suffered, according to County Administrator Chris Boies.
After reviewing approximately 200 pages of details about the ARPA funds, the supervisors informally decided to spend about $2.5 million toward expanding broadband service and water distribution infrastructure, $150,000 toward helping public health workers respond to the pandemic, $100,000 toward household and small business assistance and $89,569 toward cybersecurity improvements.
A public hearing will be held during the supervisors' July 20 meeting on an amendment to the county's recently adopted fiscal 2022 budget, enabling the ARPA funds to be appropriated and spent. During the hearing, people will be able to tell the board exactly what they think the county should spend the money on.
The county may want to avoid duplicating any assistance the state provides, Boies said.
Local officials statewide likely won't know what that assistance will be until after a special General Assembly session anticipated this summer. Furthermore, the Treasury Department later this year is expected to release further details about how it wants localities to spend their ARPA funds. So it could be awhile before the county officially finds out exactly how it can spend its allocation, Boies added.
"A lot of rules are not known for sure," he said, and probably "some needs are not known."
Officials maintain it's now essential for households to have broadband (high-speed internet) access because more people are working and going to school from home, as seen during the pandemic.
Yet outside Berryville and Boyce, many parts of rural Clarke County lack broadband service.
"I can tell you my Comcast (internet) service here in town is nothing to write home about," said Berryville District Supervisor Matthew Bass.
Before deciding exactly how broadband should be expanded, county officials may want to examine how neighboring Loudoun County eventually enhances the service there, said Millwood District Supervisor Terri Catlett.
"They're the biggest digital divide in the world," Catlett said. Eastern parts of Loudoun have broadband while rural western parts lack it, just like parts of Clarke, she said.
Albemarle County is in a similar situation, Russell District Supervisor Doug Lawrence mentioned. Charlottesville and areas immediately surrounding it have broadband, but places "out in the boonies" in the county lack it, he said.
He indicated Clarke officials also might want to look at any enhancements made there.
Nevertheless, it may not be possible for every home and business in the county to gain broadband access.
Boies said county officials have talked with Shentel about various expansion options.
"We've asked for a price to do fiber to every house," he said. But "they say there's no way" due to the extensive costs involved.
Fixed wireless internet, which involves providing broadband through radio waves, may be an option, officials indicated.
The Clarke County Public Schools are to receive about $1.29 million through ARPA. Lawrence said the schools can put some of that money toward a county broadband expansion project because their students will benefit greatly from it.
Money toward water system improvements would go to the Clarke County Sanitary Authority, which provides water/sewer service to the Boyce, Millwood and White Post areas and Waterloo, the commercial intersection of U.S. 340 (Lord Fairfax Highway) and U.S. 50 (John Mosby Highway) just south of Boyce.
Cybersecurity improvements are "something we probably need," Boies said, because of an increasing amount of hacking into computer systems worldwide.
In March, an intruder gained access to neighboring Warren County' online servers. At the time, it wasn't known whether the intruder hacked any sensitive information, according to a report in the Northern Virginia Daily.
Boies said he hasn't yet learned how Warren officials resolved their situation.
Monday's supervisors meeting was a work session. Buckmarsh District Supervisor David Weiss and White Post District Supervisor Bev McKay attended along with Bass, Catlett and Lawrence. The five comprise the full board.
Issues usually aren't voted on during work sessions. However, votes to accept the ARPA funds and schedule the public hearing were taken because "this is an urgent matter," said Weiss, the board's chairman.