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story.lead_photo.caption In this screenshot from the county's meeting video, representatives from Mid-Missouri rural electric cooperatives discuss rural internet broadband coverage issues with Cole County commissioners and other county officials during the commission meeting on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

The Cole County Commission spent much of their weekly meeting Tuesday focused on potential ways to spend incoming federal COVID-relief funds.

An application was signed Monday by Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman, and the full commission Tuesday approved sending the application into the federal government for funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

County Auditor Kristen Berhorst said it was her understanding the approval process takes approximately four days so the county should have the first half of its money sometime next week.

Berhorst said the current estimate on the ARP funding they would be getting was $14.8 million.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury will oversee and administer the payments to state and local governments.

Municipalities and counties will receive funds in two disbursements — 50 percent this year and the remaining 50 percent no earlier than 12 months from the first payment. Berhorst said the second portion of the ARP funds may not be as large as this first amount because the second payment will be based on the final 2020 census figures.

All relief funds must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, but spending of funds can go on through the end of 2026.

Cole County plans to continue to have a private accounting firm, Springfield-based BKD, giving them guidance as they navigate through the ARP process.

Story continues below meeting video.

Officials from BKD gave commissioners a presentation and said they would work with the county over the five years of the ARP for a cost of $611,000.

Cole County received more than $9 million in May 2020 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. That money was to be used for costs and expenses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CARES Act money went to help public and private schools, municipalities, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, health organizations and county government costs. These entities went through an application process with the county, which used BKD to help set up qualifications to receive money.

The commission now wants BKD officials to check and monitor to see if what the county wants to do with ARP funds falls under the federal government's qualifications for those monies.

The county hired BKD in July 2020 to help advise it on CARES funding matters and paid them $301,000 for that work.

Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said he wanted to continue to work with BKD, but thought the cost could be adjusted down as he felt it had some personnel with the county who could do some of the ARP processing work.

Bushman said the ARP process could be harder to go through since they'll have to deal directly with the federal government and not the state. He said it could be a much more complicated process, which would require all the expertise of a firm like BKD.

The commission could make a decision on BKD at its meeting next week.

Federal officials have said ARP funds could be used for infrastructure projects, especially projects to increase broadband capabilities to residents.

With the coming of the pandemic, many areas of the country found they needed increased or improved broadband service as many people had to work from home.

Under ARP guidelines, broadband projects would be required to increase download and upload speeds in unserved or underserved areas.

The County Commission has indicated broadband expansion is at the top of the list when it comes to things the county's portion of ARP money could be used for.

On Tuesday, commissioners heard a presentation from Callaway Electric Cooperative and Co-Mo-Electric Cooperative, each of which offers fiberoptic broadband services.

Co-Mo General Manager Aaron Bradshaw told commissioners the cooperative considers the density population, as well as the geology of an area, before expanding into it. The presence of a lot of rock, he said, could make the cost of the project prohibitive.

"Between Co-Mo and Callaway we have constructed 6,000 miles of fiber," Bradshaw said. "We serve more than 30,000 homes and businesses, primarily in areas surrounding Jefferson City."

Callabyte Technology, a subsidiary of Callaway, has been doing a fiberoptic improvement project in Wardsville.

Callabyte is providing internet, television and phone service to the community, offering three tiers of internet service: 100 megabytes, 500 mega- bytes, and a gig or 1,000 megabytes.

The Wardsville Board of Aldermen, which had been hearing from citizens about lack of internet service, authorized Callabyte to come in in September in exchange for a non-exclusive franchise agreement.

Callabyte already serves several communities in the Callaway Electric Cooperative service area, such as Fulton, Holts Summit, New Bloomfield and Hermann.

Bradshaw said Co-Mo's broadband subsidiary, Co-Mo Connect, can be found everywhere in their service area, which includes Moniteau County and the Lake of the Ozarks area. It offers the same service speeds as Callabyte.

Three Rivers Electric Cooperative provides electrical power to parts of the Wardsville area.

Three Rivers officials said Callaway Electric officials reached out to them about their plans for Wardsville, and the two co-ops have worked together as much as they can on this project.

Three Rivers does not have a subsidiary like Callabyte, but coop officials said with the projects they've supported, the coops that surround their service area are or will be providing about 80 percent of Three Rivers customers with access to high speed internet.

Although Co-Mo and Callaway officials said service area maps from the Federal Communications Commission indicate broadband service is adequate in many parts of Central Missouri, it has been their experience that is actually not the case.

Their research has found places such as Centertown, Lohman and Russellville lack adequate service as does St. Martins, which did get broadband expansion in a couple of neighborhoods from Socket Telecom thanks to state money dedicated for broadband expansion.

Bradshaw said Co-Mo and Callaway are hoping to work with the County Commission to use the ARP money to expand service to these and other areas.

"We want to help get the holes filled in," Bradshaw said. "We don't cherry pick which areas are served, but we do have to make sure it's economically feasible for us to come into an area. We also need to keep in mind that although supply chain issues haven't been a problem yet on our projects, that may change in the future. Also, with the five-year time span of ARP, we want to be cognizant of how much work we can do in that time period."

Commissioners plan to have further meetings with the providers as well as other neighboring counties and the new Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership about ways they could team up to do as much as possible with the ARP money for broadband expansion.

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