A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband internet remains a need and filling jobs is a challenge in southern Minnesota, county commissioners told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar Friday.
Rice County spent some of its federal COVID-19 funding on expanding broadband internet, but there’s still more work to be done, Rice County Commissioner Steve Underdahl said during a call with Freeborn County officials and Klobuchar.
With the next round of federal funding that’s coming, Underdahl said they’re interested in spending it on an initiative that will be sustainable into the future. Broadband infrastructure is an investment that the county will receive a return on for many years to come, he said, adding that they look forward to helping communities grow and nurture, especially in education.
“As we all know, broadband and its shortcomings became very, very evident with our education as they tried to do distance learning,” he told Klobuchar.
Rice County will receive $12.99 million and Freeborn County will receive $5.87 million to spend on pandemic-related costs in the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed in March. Counties have until the end of 2024 to spend the funds and Congress gave counties more flexibility with this funding than it did in last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. However, Freeborn County Commissioner Chris Shoff told Klobuchar that the Treasury Department needs to give counties guidance on eligible expenses more quickly.
Infrastructure is also a looming issue for Congress, Klobuchar said. Klobuchar noted that she’s “happy” with the direction Congress is going on for broadband internet funding. Klobuchar has introduced legislation dedicating $94 million to expanding broadband infrastructure while Republicans are supporting a $60 million plan.
“I think we’ve seen the great need for broadband in our rural areas and … even if you have it in your towns, which I know many of you do, there are people who live further out and then they can’t do work from home or do a teleconference with a doctor,” she said.
Freeborn County has spent some of the federal funding it received last year on the county Public Health Department’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics, and partnering with community groups for food drives, Shoff said.
Rice County’s spending wasn’t much different than Freeborn, Underdahl said. Rice County Public Health used the funding on COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and vaccination clinics. Public Health’s clinics are now opening to the general public, which is a “good thing,” he said. For the funds the county received specifically for impacted businesses, Rice County received three times as many applications as funding available last year, he said.
A “critical piece” in the pandemic now is getting residents who aren’t 100% on board with the vaccine to receive the vaccine and that’s going to be a challenge, he said.
Klobuchar agreed, saying, “To get the herd immunity, it’s going to be really important that we get more people vaccinated. Otherwise we’re just going to have to wait for them to get sick, and that makes no sense when they can get vaccinated, and then we would be in a much better place sooner.”
Freeborn County also plans to use the latest federal funding it’ll receive on expanding broadband internet. Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen said 55% of his county has high-speed internet and the county is in the process of securing an agreement to expand high-speed internet to the rest of the county in the next 18 months. The county will use funds it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and other funding sources. Internet infrastructure costs about $20,000 per mile to install, he said.
Klobuchar noted that part of her legislation would also address affordability to ensure that low-income residents have access to broadband internet.
Freeborn and Rice officials also told Klobuchar that their counties are facing workforce shortages. Klobuchar said she sees apprenticeships, community colleges and immigration as part of the workforce solution.
Rice County’s growth has been limited by the availability of its workforce, Underdahl said. The county is trying to take a multi-faceted approach to the issue, but housing is a problem in Faribault, he said. The schools have worked with the local community college to create a career pathway to fill employer needs in the community. There’s also discussion about starting a pre-kindergarten program, which is an investment in the future workforce, he said.
Freeborn has a strong program at its community college that helps fill workforce needs, but it’s still a struggle for employers to find employees, Jensen said. The county is also having trouble finding employees for its departments, he said, noting that they’re on the third attempt at trying to fill an open assessor position.
“It is tough. It is a tough road because everybody is fighting over the same talent level of people,” he said.