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Hancock County officials set course on ARP funds

WORK SESSION — The Hancock County Commission met in a work session Tuesday morning to discuss recommendations from residents on the use of funds from the federal American Rescue Plan. Commissioners, from left, Jeff Davis, Eron Chek and Paul Cowey, plan to use the funding for projects involving broadband, water and sewer improvements, as well as radio communication for local emergency responders. -- Craig Howell

NEW CUMBERLAND — Hancock County’s commissioners feel funding the county is set to receive through the federal American Rescue Plan should be used for long-term projects which will benefit all residents.

During a work session held in the commission office of the county courthouse Tuesday, commissioners decided to focus their allotment on areas involving the development of broadband, water and sewer infrastructure, as well as communications for local emergency responders.

Early estimates provided by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., had Hancock County receiving $5.59 million through the ARP program, and commissioners sought input from residents on potential uses of the funds.

Commission President Paul Cowey noted more than 50 suggestions were received by e-mail, with Commissioner Jeff Davis saying he had received other recommendations by phone calls from residents.

Many of the requests were for brick-and-mortar projects, such as maintenance to the Hancock County Museum or the construction of an indoor sports facility, or support of educational programs and other community projects. Commissioners said while those projects might have short-term benefits, they wouldn’t necessarily help the entire county.

“I don’t think we should play Santa Claus,” Davis said.

Other suggestions focused on improvements to local roads, which commissioners said would not be possible under the terms of the ARP.

Newell resident Mike Nixon attended Tuesday’s meeting, urging commissioners to use the funds as a show of support for the county’s front-line workers and emergency services. Nixon suggested providing $5,000 to each individual under his proposal, saying he estimated it would cost $1.5 million.

“These people need a vacation, and I think it would be good to give them a vacation when all this is over,” Nixon said.

Nixon also recommended support for renovations to a veterans memorial in Newell, support for new equipment for the Newell Volunteer Fire Department and sidewalk improvements in the community.

Commissioner Eron Chek noted many requests were for improvements to broadband and Internet services in the county, saying it could be an asset in attracting new businesses and residents to the area. Mentioning the new Ascend West Virginia program announced the Gov. Jim Justice, which looks to draw remote workers to the state, Chek said planning needs to be done if such efforts are to be successful

“They’re not going to come if they don’t have broadband, sewer and water,” Chek said.

Cowey pointed to an ongoing project which would improve communication capabilities among all of the county’s fire and law enforcement agencies, as well as connect them to a state-operated system, explaining, it will need additional funds to reach completion.

“It’s communication for the safety of the entire county,” he said.

Davis recommended the commission reach out to all of the residents who offered suggestions and report their decision.

As part of the ARP, cities and counties will receive funding directly from the federal government as additional relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Manchin, the funds, to be provided in two disbursements, are to be used for expenses related to the pandemic, coverage of lost revenue related to the virus, and necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Check said the funds must be used by the end of 2024.

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