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Improved high-speed Internet access a priority

TALKING INTERNET — Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission executive director Mike Paprocki appeared before the Jefferson County commissioners at Thursday’s meeting to discuss the steps the county needs to take to improve access to high speed internet. The county approved the pursuance of a grant to fund a broadband feasibility study for the county. -- Andrew Grimm

STEUBENVILLE — One thing the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront is the need for improved high-speed Internet access throughout Jefferson County.

Thursday, the Jefferson County commissioners and Mike Paprocki, executive director of the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission, discussed how the county can make progress.

“We were getting substantial comments from people in Jefferson County about the inadequate broadband service, and this was pre-pandemic,” Paprocki said, noting the pandemic only amplified the need.

The first step is for the BHJ to pursue a rural business development grant to fund a feasibility study for the county to determine the scope and cost of the creation of a network in the county. Paprocki noted that similar studies were done in Brooke and Hancock counties.

“We have fiber that goes through here, but there’s no way to tap into it until we build what is called the middle-mile network,” Paprocki said. “(The study) is our starting point.”

The commissioners agreed to send a letter of support to go with Paprocki’s grant application.

It was noted that federal programs have not gone efficiently for a variety of reasons.

According to Paprocki, many of the recently talked about 2,500 new connections in the county were from wireless providers, which he said were an upgrade but not the broadband access that some may have thought and information about the details of those connections are hard to get from the FCC.

He said recent legislation handles getting access from the “pole to the household” but not what is on the pole for residents to tie in to.

“(Congress) keeps dolling out dollars to the program, and we’re finding out the initial dollars that were dolled out were allocated in the wrong direction,” he said. “The middle-mile is what we need to build, and there are very few federal dollars available to do that.”

Commissioner Tony Morelli, who has been outspoken about the need for more access in the county, said he doesn’t think “there’s a more important project” than accomplishing better broadband access.

“The need is just so great,” he said.

It was noted that the complete construction of a middle-mile network in the county could take as long as five years. Commissioner Dave Maple noted getting some “quick wins” with wireless provider expansion could be a part of the process.

“The study definitely needs done,” Maple said. “We need a delta, we need to know how far off we are.”

Paprocki pointed out that West Virginia has had a broadband council for more than eight years, while Ohio is still debating the need for one.

He also said, after Morelli referenced improvements through state legislation to other areas of the state, that the feasibility study could help the area’s representatives get involved in more bills and make the case for the county to be better included in future funding and action.

“(Areas where targeted funds are going) are ready, the only way we could get ready is to be able to say we need (this amount), this is step one, step two, step three,” Paprocki said. “We could tell our state legislators that represent us, this is what we need and have them fight for us.”

While Maple noted that the commissioners, by law, are very limited as to their involvement in such a project, it was noted by Paprocki that the Jefferson County Port Authority could be involved.

Port authority executive director Robert Naylor was at the meeting for another topic and participated in the discussion.

“We’ve been talking about it for 18 years,” Commissioner Thomas Graham said. “This is a starting point, there have been other starting points. I hope it works. Whatever it takes to make it work, I’m all for it. (The BHJ has) my full support on this.”

During the weekly updates from water and sewer director Michael Eroshevich, the topic of an unhappy resident in Amsterdam was discussed.

According to Eroshevich, a resident is said to be having issues with water in their basement after work was done nearby by a contractor – Rudzik Excavating – for the ongoing sewer project in the village.

He said preliminary analysis would indicate the contractor did not cause the issue, but the contractor’s insurance company will be conducting a review of the matter to determine if there is any fault to the contractor and county.

“If it is determined that it is the fault of anything on our part, the contractor, the situation will be resolved correctly,” Graham said. “If it’s not the contractor’s fault, that problem rests with the homeowner.”

Eroshevich said, to his knowledge, the resident had not tried to contact his office directly, as was reported to another outlet, but rather had been trying to reach the contractor.

Morelli asked Eroshevich to continue to keep the mayor of Amsterdam in the loop on any developments.

The commissioners also approved the 2021 plan of work for the Soil and Water Conservation District as well as the continuation of the county’s participation in the water pollution control loan fund – which is a program that helps repair or replace failing septic systems throughout the county for qualifying residents – through a resolution.

“I do want to offer my appreciation to the board of commissioners,” soil and water Administrator Irene Moore said. “Because of your local funding, we are able to draw matching funds from the state.”

According to Wendee Dodds, natural resources specialist and operations manager, the county has been able to replace about 70 systems since joining the program and looks to replace another 10 to 15 this year.

She noted Logan Moon, watershed coordinator, will be working on the program.

“It’s a fantastic program,” Maple said. “The last decade or two, you guys have done fantastic work. I heard at one point in time, Ohio, from a septic standpoint, was the worst state in the union. I don’t know (where the state ranks now), but I know Jefferson County has made huge, huge strides.”

Moore was commended for the thorough, detailed, 2021 plan.

“Your agency has been very proactive and very professional,” Graham said.

The district will be accepting applications for the program until sometime near the end of April.

Clerk of Courts Andrew Plesich asked commissioners to put the brakes on a project that was bid out before he took office in January after discovering the scope of the project that was bid was not correct.

According to Plesich, a project to scan documents that are currently being stored in the courthouse and the Jefferson County Tower was not bid at a wide enough scope to include all of the documents that would be needed.

The project, as proposed, would cost about $190,000, while upping it to include everything needed would exceed $400,000.

Plesich said he believes the project is needed and would benefit the county in numerous ways. He told the board he was exploring potential grants and other options for funding the project.

No contracts had been approved by the commissioners for the project and the current bids will remain as pending while Plesich reviews options.

Other items before commissioners included:

¯ Interviews were conducted of three candidates to fill a vacancy on the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority board. Mike Mehalik, Bob Smith and Gary Stubbs each got a turn to detail their interest in the position to the commissioners.

Morelli noted that while only one of the three can be selected, each could potentially play a role in the future of the county. Maple noted it was good to see individuals wanting the serve the community.

¯ The commissioners received correspondence from the Jefferson County Regional Airport Authority about the potential move of Wintersville county court to a building at the airpark.

Maple and Morelli detailed several other options the county has and will be exploring to reduce costs with the operating expenses of the courts continuing to rise, such as the potential consolidation of at least two of the three county courts, and said it was too early in the process to give any approval or direction to airpark.

¯ The commissioners approved a conveyance agreement for the expansion of Bully Tools at the Jefferson County Industrial Park for the port authority, which will now go before its board at the Wednesday meeting.

¯ Bids were opened and forwarded to the county engineer’s office for aggregate materials (four bids), bituminous and asphalt products (three bids) and gasoline and diesel fuel (four bids) for 2021. The department will accept all bids that meet the criteria and enter into contracts with those companies.

¯ The board approved a service agreement for an alcohol monitoring system for adult probation court, which is funded by a $10,000 private donation.

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