By JAMES KATES / The Capstone
Jefferson County is poised for a major leap forward in making broadband Internet access available for all its population.
The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday authorized the forging of a public-private pact with Hilbert / Bug Tussel Wireless of Green Bay and other providers to deliver wireless and fiber-optic line service in underserved parts of the county.
The project, estimated to cost $11 million to $15 million, would be part of a larger regional effort coordinated by a government coalition led by Fond du Lac County.
Working with Jefferson County, Hilbert / Bug Tussel would seek grants from the state Public Service Commission to help finance the work. Hilbert / Bug Tussel would be the primary borrower for the remainder, with the county being the final guarantor for the debt.
A pact is expected to be finalized by July, with service becoming available by the beginning of 2024.
If Hilbert / Bug Tussel were to default on its debt, “we would become the owners of the entire system,” County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said in response to a board member’s query. The county is performing “due diligence” to make sure Hilbert and its partners are financially sound, he said.
“Broadband” is defined as service that provides download speeds exceeding 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second. It is delivered through cable modems, fiber-optic line and fixed wireless service.
Jefferson County’s comprehensive plan adopted in 2021 says broadband is “essential for economic competitiveness,” allowing residents to “run a business, work from home, or attend virtual school sessions.”
In Jefferson County, maps available online from the Public Service Commission show gaps in broadband service in rural areas northeast and southeast of the City of Jefferson. Areas outside Waterloo and Lake Mills and southwest of the City of Jefferson, toward Lake Koshkonong, also are lagging.
Curiously, maps newly provided to county officials by the PSC show that the county is adequately served and does not need more state assistance, said Supervisor Amy Rinard of Ixonia, chair of the County Board’s Broadband Working Group. The county disputes that assessment, she said.
Regardless of whether more state funding is available, the PSC “should know that we’re not waiting around anymore, because the people of Jefferson County need broadband,” Rinard said.
Established in 2019, the Broadband Working Group has had some success in expanding broadband access in the county.
Bertram Internet of Random Lake and Netwurx Internet have worked with the county to build four towers delivering fixed wireless Internet in a northern stretch of the county from Watertown to Ixonia.
Along with state grants, federal spending amid the Covid pandemic has helped accelerate broadband expansion in Jefferson County. The Bertram deal was financed in part by $1.1 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020. In addition, the county has set aside more than $2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 for future broadband partnerships.
County government has weathered the Covid pandemic better than expected, and the budget is in good shape as a result, Wehmeier told supervisors Tuesday.
The board approved resolutions closing out the books on 2021. Surplus cash will allow the county to jump-start some projects and pay off debt this year, Wehmeier said.
He cited the county’s one-half-percent sales tax as a key indicator. The sales tax brought in nearly $8 million last year. The county’s estimate for this year is a more conservative $7.3 million.
A boom in home sales brought in more transfer taxes and fees for land records in 2021.
The county might use its extra cash to pay off the debt on the Highway Department shop before the bond issuer can raise interest rates, Wehmeier suggested. The debt is now about $2 million.
One trouble spot in the changing economy is that county government, like other employers, is struggling to attract good workers as employees retire or take other jobs, Wehmeier said.
“Many employers are making direct calls to our staff, trying to recruit them,” he said. The county needs to consider using private-sector tactics such as offering sign-on bonuses, he added. Supervisors will consider adding a position for a recruiting specialist.
Also on Tuesday, the County Board approved contracts for the completion of Phases I and II of the Interurban Trail, a paved recreation path being built on the right-of-way for the former Interurban Rail Line. The trail will now run from Watertown to the outskirts of Ixonia.
The contracts for Wolf Paving Co. and Janke General Contractors Inc. will total about $1.8 million, with most of that being covered by state and federal grants. Carryover funds from the 2021 budget will account for the remainder.
Supervisors also approved a $39,331 contract with KL Engineering to do a feasibility study for Phase III of the trail, which will stretch from County Highway F in Ixonia to West Second Street in Oconomowoc, a distance of about four miles.
That preliminary work will be paid for with carryover funds and with donations from the Oconomowoc Rotary Club.
“When this project is through, you’ll be able to ride your bike from Watertown all the way to Lake Michigan,” Rinard said. “We won’t be the missing link anymore.”