Carlton County department heads presented their wish lists for projects they would like to have come out of the $4.4 million in aid the county received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act during a Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1.
The money is divided into four main areas of $800,000 each, said Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau. About $43,500 has also been set aside for cities and townships with populations less than 200, while another $1.2 million will be held in reserve. Genereau said the money needs to be spent on COVID-19 related projects.
The four areas include small business assistance; community assistance programs/public health; community communication systems improvement; and COVID-19 response reimbursement, infrastructure and miscellaneous community.
He explained that many of the projects total more than the amount of CARES Act money available for the departments.
“We do not want to send any of the money back,” Genereau said. “We want it to stay in Carlton County.”
The biggest items discussed during the meeting included a Telepresence update for $132,000 for the Department of Health and Human Services; scan digitization equipment for the recorder's office at a cost of $107,000; purchasing the Pictometry program for the assessor's office for $300,000; and a variety of other technology updates and improvements.
County Assessor Kyle Holmes said the Pictometry program would allow his staff to use aerial photos of properties and do more work from the office.
The state requires that the county still assess properties during the pandemic, but some residents told Holmes they were not happy that county staff were visiting properties in-person, he said. The new program would allow county staff to use aerial photos provided by the software.
The current program being used by the assessor's office is not as advanced and does not qualify for CARES Act money, Holmes said.
“It is more than I would normally ask for,” Holmes said. “I’m only asking because there is funding available.”
Commissioner Marv Bodie asked if it is possible to pre-purchase any of the aerial photos. Holmes said it is not.
Commissioner Dick Brenner said he was convinced by Holmes' presentation it would be in the county’s best interest to purchase the program.
Bodie said he agreed with Brenner.
For COVID-19 response reimbursement, infrastructure and miscellaneous community, officials would like to use the funds for wage reimbursement; to purchase a generator for the Community Services Building in Cloquet; to upgrade the HVAC and digital controls at the old Cloquet City Hall building and the Carlton Transportation Building; to upgrade the Information Technology space and bathrooms at the old city hall building; and to erect more broadband towers, Genereau said.
Dan Reed, a member of the CARES Act team that researched broadband deficiencies, recommended the board consider adding towers to improve internet accessibility throughout the county. The team's research showed Carlton County would need 23 more towers to improve accessibility. Towers cost about $25,000 each.
“This is an ambitious expenditure, but nobody will help us out,” Reed said.
Rural areas like Automba are struggling at this time due to a lack of available internet access or extremely slow internet, he said. Adding towers is one possible solution.
“The capability seems to be there,” Reed said. “The economic impact would be great. Hot spots are a wonderful thing, but you have to have a signal.”
Mary Finnegan, economic development director, said the county has an internet speed test on its website. Officials are trying to determine where the unserved and underserved areas are in Carlton County. So far the results show that internet service in the county is low, she said. She urged residents to take the test.
The board will formally approve a portion of the funding at its meeting Tuesday, Sept. 8. The remaining funds will be approved at later dates.