Thursday, October 6, 2022
Oct. 6, 2022

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Clark Council OKs request for COVID funds to expand broadband to rural residents

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Residents near Battle Ground Lake lacking high-speed internet access could benefit from a recently approved request for $4.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand broadband service. The project would add 31 miles of new high-speed fiber-optic broadband and provide internet access to 503 households.

The Clark County Council voted 4-1 during its Tuesday meeting to approve the request. Councilor Richard Rylander Jr. was the lone vote against.

The county has received $94.8 million in ARPA funds, with $44.6 remaining to be allocated to new requests.

“I have extreme concerns about this particular proposal from Comcast only because it reaches such a small number of additional people. It’s not clear to me what the best mix of services is in rural Clark County,” Rylander said.

He said because the council has more requests than it has funding available, it needs to fund those items with the “broadest possible reach and benefit across multiple programs.”

Internet service giant Comcast made the request in hopes of partnering with the county. Without government funding, the company said it was too expensive to connect a small number of homes to its network. According to a county report, Comcast would contribute $1.99 million to the project, bringing the total cost to $6.64 million.

Even though the initial request came from Comcast, the county cannot allocate funds directly to the company. Lindsay Shafar, legislative assistant for the county, said the council could allocate an amount to a project that would then go through a competitive request for proposal process.

Battle Ground resident Penny Jarvis urged the council to approve the request. Jarvis said the only time she and her husband ever regret moving to their rural north county home is when they turn on their computer. Because there is no broadband internet provider in her area, she said they must rely on a satellite provider.

“We pay upwards of $150 for 30 megabytes for half the month and for the other half, it’s 3 megabytes per second. We experience unstable bandwidth causing drops. Streaming service is a joke. It’s just one long buffer. We need more reliable options. We need broadband,” Jarvis said.

Shafar said the Washington State Broadband Office is working on a report that will show the highest concentrations of unserved and underserved homes as well as connectivity issues like topography for each county. She said the report, which is due within the next two to three months, will give the county a better understanding of the overall broadband needs.

Down payment assistance

The council unanimously approved a $2 million ARPA request to create and fund a down payment assistance program for certain eligible homebuyers.

County Treasurer Alishia Topper said the program will benefit buyers from low- and middle-income households priced out of homeownership.

Unlike a traditional second mortgage, loans provided through the down payment assistance program would not be paid back monthly. Instead, the loan payments are deferred for 30 years at 2 percent simple interest. Repayment would be due at the time of sale, transfer, refinance or if the borrower no longer lives in the home. The maximum loan amount would be $60,000, although Topper said most loans would be for far less.

“While many potential homebuyers are able to make the monthly mortgage payment, the primary obstacle to homeownership remains the ability of working individuals to amass adequate funds for the down payment and closing costs,” Topper said.

Justin Wood from the Clark County Association of Realtors voiced his support for the program during the council meeting. Wood said ARPA funds are intended to alleviate impacts from the pandemic, adding the county’s “unprecedented hot housing market” has definitely been affected.

“The July 2022 median home sale price in Clark County was $529,400, making homeownership out of the grasp for many in our community,” Wood said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, potential homebuyers lost income, changed careers, paid medical bills, handled child care, relocated and much more.”

Rylander said he initially had concerns about how the program would work and how many people it would benefit. However, after reviewing the details with Topper he said he is now a strong supporter.

Councilor Gary Medvigy said his only concern is what happens in the event of a foreclosure.

“There’s always minimal risk when you’re in a loan structure,” Topper said.

Topper said the primary lender would be first in line for repayment and the county loan would be in second position.

Community grants

One ARPA request the council decided to table was a $2 million request for the community grants program. Half of the funds will be used to provide assistance to nonprofit organizations and the other half will go to small businesses still recovering from the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday’s fund request marks the second request for $2 million. The first request, which was approved in February, provided assistance to 26 small businesses, nonprofits and community service groups, according to a staff report presented by county Finance Director Mark Gassaway.

“The first program we did, we really didn’t differentiate that way. There were a few businesses, but they were mostly nonprofits,” Gassaway said. “This would allow more local businesses — and nonprofits — to participate.”

Council Chair Karen Bowerman suggested holding the request over to a future hearing when other funding sources available for the program could also be discussed. Councilor Temple Lentz agreed, saying the council needed to ensure the funds are used in the most effective way possible.

The council will hold a public hearing on Aug. 31 to review this and other ARPA funding requests.

Details for the meeting have not yet been announced but should be available at www.clark.wa.gov/calendar in the next few days.

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