Local infrastructure needs federal funding

Staff Writer
The Chronicle Express

The New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) has sent a letter to President Trump and congressional leaders calling for immediate action on infrastructure investment as part of any future economic stimulus packages. The letter included a list of infrastructure projects from 40 counties totaling more than $7.35 billion. 

NYSAC projects that counties across New York State (outside of New York City) currently have more than $10.8 billion in infrastructure funding needs and that fully funding these projects could create or save up to 200,000 jobs, helping to revitalize local economies as they begin the process of recovering from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Yates County, with a population of 24,913, has total infrastructure project costs of $23,379,808. County Administrator-Treasurer Nonie Flynn joined NYSAC’s call, itemizing the county’s major projects.

“Yates County had significant infrastructure needs that we have had to put on hold indefinitely because of the serious financial impact of the recent pandemic,” Flynn said, noting Yates County’s four major needs are:

1. Rural Broadband – “We were fortunate to be the recipient of the first round of funding from a USDA ReConnect Grant. The contract was signed this Spring and the County’s 25% share is $3,489,125.” 

2. Communications System Upgrade – “Because we have critical E91 1 radio systems that have reached end of life and are no longer supported by the vendor, we conducted a communications system needs study at the beginning ofthe year. The attached cost estimate is $5,339,258.”

3. Highway Facility –

“Because we have very old highway facilities, we had a needs assessment completed at the end of2019. We received the attached cost estimates for two plans of either $14,146,241 or $14,551,425.”

4. Public Safety Building Facilities Needs Assessment- “Our 1970s Public Safety building is in need of either a large renovation or a new rebuild. This Spring we put out a request for proposals for a company to do a needs assessment for us.” The four respondents’ quotes range between $20,000 and nearly $70,000. “We have not contracted with anyone yet for the assessment because of the pandemic.” says Flynn. “We also have a number of towns and municipalities that have infrastructure needs that have been put on hold.”

NYSAC President John F. Marren said, “Now is the time to innovate, to invest in our future, and to rebuild a stronger, smarter infrastructure for the good of all,...It is in this spirit of renewal that we presented these project recommendations to our federal partners. These projects represent a significant opportunity to jumpstart our economy, add construction and trade jobs to our workforce, and strengthen our infrastructure for the next generation of Americans.”

“As we begin to rebuild our communities in the wake of this economic disaster, now is the perfect time to invest in these long-overdue projects,” said Dan McCoy, President of the County Executives Association of New York. “By making critical investments in infrastructure, we can create and save tens of thousands of jobs while tackling long-standing infrastructure needs that will strengthen our communities and attract new business opportunities.”

The renewed call for federal funding comes as counties grapple with dramatic drops in revenues. Sales tax revenues for the month of May were down 32 percent statewide, in line with NYSAC’s most recent Coronavirus Economic Impact Report which projects that counties outside New York City will face revenue losses of up to $2 billion and the potential of another $1.5 billion in state budget cuts. 

NYSAC’s report that projects that counties outside New York City will face revenue losses of up to $2 billion and the potential of another $1.5 billion in state budget cuts, which represents more than 16 percent of all county revenues.

As a result of these unprecedented economic circumstances, counties face a quadruple threat of:

1. Declining local revenues: sales, occupancy, mortgage recording taxes and gaming revenues.

2. Higher spending necessary to respond to the health and social service emergency

3. The loss of state reimbursement; and

4. Significant losses for small businesses on our main streets that could threaten jobs and the property tax base.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also joined the call for investment, urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately release $100 million in rural broadband funding, as millions of families continue to adjust to a new normal of online learning, work, and health care due to the COVID-19 crisis. Before the coronavirus pandemic, rural and native communities already faced a substantial broadband gap. 

According to a recent FCC report, over 25% of rural Americans are without access to quality broadband, compared to only 1.7% of Americans living in urban areas. Now, the pandemic has exacerbated this divide, as Americans are forced to stay, learn and work from home. Gillibrand called on the Trump administration to quickly spend the $100 million in funding for federal grants administered through the USDA ReConnect program under the CARES Act, in order to prioritize and expand rural communities’ essential access to broadband. The ReConnect program is desperately needed to provide loans and grants for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment required to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. 

“It’s disappointing, and frankly unacceptable, that the administration has yet to invest hard-won funding for rural broadband infrastructure that Congress guaranteed in the CARES Act,” said Gillibrand. “Because of the administration’s inaction, New Yorkers have been trying to do the impossible and get by in the era of COVID without access to broadband in their homes, relying instead on free public Wi-Fi or limited satellite internet. We must fight to close the pervasive digital divide in our country and ensure that every American has access to vital technological resources, no matter their zip code or socioeconomic status. Rural and native families cannot wait any longer, and I’m going to fight to get this funding to the communities that need it the most.”

More than 338,000 families in the state lack broadband, which makes connecting to the internet far too difficult, especially in rural and native communities. While Congress fought to include an additional $100 million to the USDA ReConnect Broadband program for grants in the CARES Act, months later the Trump administration has spent only a small fraction of that money. Senator Gillibrand, alongside Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), urged the USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to expedite spending of crucial ReConnect program funding.

 The letter cites the disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19 on rural America. “The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that broadband isn’t just nice, it is necessary for our nation’s economy to work for everyone.”

According to the Senators’ letter, the USDA ReConnect program was specifically designed to address rural and urban internet inequities, by equipping rural America with grants and loans to facilitate and fund construction of new broadband infrastructure. “Recognizing the need for broadband access in rural communities, Congress appropriated an additional $100 million under The CARES Act for the ReConnect Program. However, the USDA has only obligated a small fraction of this money. These funds are desperately needed, and it is unacceptable that this money is still unspent. We ask that you listen to the needs of millions of Americans living in rural communities across the country, expedite the spending of ReConnect program dollars, and prioritize improved broadband access.”