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Co. board considers broadband expansion

The American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) provided billions of dollars in total for states, counties, cities and tribal governments to cover increased expenditures, replenish lost revenue and mitigate economic harm from the COVID-19 pandemic. The APRA, according to a recent press release from Governor Tony Evers, "provides an additional, temporary fiscal incentive for states to adopt a provision to expand Medicaid." Under this act, the state of Wisconsin would realize an estimated cost savings of $1.6 billion by expanding BadgerCare.

One of the projects listed in a bill to be taken up in a special legislative session would be $200 million for broadband expansion in a grant program administered by the Public Service Commission statewide. The Price County Executive Committee met in May regarding a resolution to the county board to expand broadband in the county with the possibility of receiving some of those grant funds for their project.

This project would be completed in the 339 exchange area, which is east of Phillips down to the County J and Highway 111 area.

This resolution would use ARPA funds in order to complete this expansion. The feeling of the committee was to approve the resolution to use $100,000 of funding to help secure the grant for the project. The grants are competitive, with higher scores being given to projects with more participation and higher public funding amounts.

This resolution went to the full county board on the same day. The board was advised by county administrator Nick Trimmer, that the ARPA funding had been received by the county in the amount of just short of $1.3 million. Those funds would be deposited into Prevail bank, who offered the county a much better interest rate than other financial institutions. It was unclear, however, he said, regarding what could be done with that interest. It was unclear whether the money accrued as interest needed to be spent in accordance with ARPA guidelines or if the county then owned that money. He said he had advised the executive committee to "sit back and learn" what is allowable with the ARPA funding.

"The biggest hurdles we've seen with this 151-page document, or whatever it is, is that there's a lot of information there," he told the board. "There's a lot of, it felt like you could spend it on something. Well, you can, however, you have to make sure this group is low wage earners, or this group is that or this is group, this is how it's affected." He used the example of park improvements. Looking at parks as a tourism driver. Technically, a county cannot invest in its parks with this money, "Are they considered attractions?" he asked. "Now, you can do attractions. You can invest in a splash pad as an attraction, but not necessarily your park as in growing your park, because we are not considered an industry." He said he was hesitant to bring projects forward due to the ambiguity of the rules. The guidelines given by the treasury, he said, were even more vague than the rules themselves.

There was a concern revolving around a possible federal audit, that could happen at any time within 10 years of use of these funds. The concern was regarding language as far as use of funds in several areas. Federal audits dig very deep into every project to justify every expense, Trimmer said. Every dollar would need to be tracked. According to ARPA, he said, there is basically unlimited funding to administer the program. This means the possibility of an audit for the county is very high, even though other, more populated counties are receiving much higher amounts.

"I agree with broadband in the long term, that we should do something, but through the ARPA funding, we will have to work with the vendor that we choose to distribute the money. They have to follow certain procedures that they'll get audited through our federal audit that we will have to repay if they don't do certain things. Some are interpreting it as 'they should,' and others are interpreting it as 'they shall,' and the federal government is going to do what they want in the end on interpretation and that's the fear." He said the county did not have the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars to hire lawyers to debate the terminology in court. He voiced his stance in needing an abundance of caution until and unless clarity could be brought to the matter.

Projects to be completed with ARPA funding must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024 and funds must be spent by December of 2026. With a few years to make decisions on whether to use ARPA funding for this project, no decision was made at the county board meeting. Options would be discussed in the future.


DNR provides update on CWD Response Plan

At the most recent Natural Resources Board (NRB) meeting, Department of Natural Resources wildlife health conservation specialists Amanda Kamps presented the department's most recent update on the state's Chronic Wasting Disease response plan.

CWD is an always-fatal neurological disease affecting cervids such as whitetailed deer and elk. The state began monitoring the white-tailed deer population in 1999. The fist positives were found in 2002. Since then, the disease has made its way across the state with 57 CWD-affected counties in the state presently. Of those counties a deer has tested positive in either the wild herd or on a game farm in 40 counties, while 17 counties are within 10 miles of a positive test.

When a cervid is found to have tested positive for CWD, the county in which the deer was harvested or found, by statute, is subject to a three-year ban on baiting and feeding of wild deer in the county. Any county within 10 miles of a positive test is subject to a two-year feeding and baiting ban. This is done in an attempt to avoid unnatural concentrations of deer and deer repeatedly visiting the same location. This year, according to Kamps, no feeding and baiting bans were set to expire.

This past hunting season, hunters submitted deer for testing in all counties in the state. This made for just under 19,000 tests this year, with an average turn-around time of test to be nine days. In the Southern Farmland Zone, 9,315 deer were tested with 1,542 positives. In the remainder of the state, 29 positives came back from the testing of 9,509 deer, Kamps said.

Two new programs, the Adopt A Dumpster (AAD) and the Adopt A Kiosk (AAK), saw strong participation in the most recent hunting season. The Adopt A Dumpster program was created to offer proper disposal options for deer carcasses. There is concern around the prion that causes CWD and its ability to remain in the environment for many years. Using a proper disposal method can help to contain those prions and not expose the environment, and possibly other animals, to an infected carcass.

Last season, there were 105 dumpsters available throughout the state. Forty-nine of those dumpsters were placed through the state's cost shar program made possibly by a USDA grant. In total, Kamps reported, there were 55 AAD partners and participants in the program this year. This meant dumpsters were available in every county in the state this year. The total spent on the program this year was $64,000.

The Adopt A Kiosk program provides places for hunters to bring their deer to be tested for CWD. This year 15 participants helped make that testing more readily available. While many DNR offices have kiosks available, the program looks to expand the opportunities to have testing done, hoping this will increase the rate of testing across the state. Ten of those locations were Level 1 locations, meaning the participant checked on supplies continually, letting the department know when the kiosk needed attention. The Level 2 locations, of which there were four, had participants who checked the data sheets submitted to be sure all of the required information had been provided. The one Level 3 location helped hunters with sample collection as well as providing the other services of Level 1 and 2 kiosks.

Kamps gave an overview of both programs and their availability during last fall's nine-day gun deer season. There were a total of 255 sampling locations across the state. Of those, 41 were staffed. There were 183 self-serve kiosks and 31 locations offered sampling by appointment.

In the area of carcass disposal, there were 129 approved locations available to hunters during the nine-day gun deer season. Fourteen of those were landfills, 10 were transfer stations, and 105 were dumpsters offering collection for deer carcasses.

The USDA grant received by the state allowed for the expansion of state-wide messaging about CWD, Kamps said. It also allowed for increased sampling and disposal locations, including the expansion of the AAK program. The grant also helped continue surveillance efforts in the Northeastern District, she said, as well as increased the automation of the GO Wild system, processing 2,456 deer samples over the season. Those grants are also allowing the DNR's department of applied science to work on a study looking at chemical deactivation of soil-bound CWD prions.

Kamps ended her presentation looking at the state's Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) study. With the finding in 2018 of Bovine TB on a cattle farm, testing of white tailed deer, who are also susceptible to the diseases, was done during a three-year study around the farm. Eighty samples were collected in 2020, with no deer testing positive for the disease. Kamps said there are discussions underway regarding possibly carrying that program into the 2021 hunting season.


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