County’s new Broadband Committee meets to take steps toward improved internet

By Laura Schiermeier, Staff Writer
Posted 6/2/21

VIENNA — At last Thursday’s Maries County Commission meeting, Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman gave a report on a recent Maries County Broadband Committee meeting, which was held …

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County’s new Broadband Committee meets to take steps toward improved internet

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VIENNA — At last Thursday’s Maries County Commission meeting, Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman gave a report on a recent Maries County Broadband Committee meeting, which was held via Zoom.

Besides Stratman, also attending from the courthouse were County Clerk Rhonda Rodgers, Clerk’s Deputy Renee Kottwitz and Treasurer Rhonda Slone.

Others who were on the Zoom meeting included Haley Tollefson of LTD internet, Terry Lockhart and Derek of Windstream, Nathan Whittacre of RadioWire, Roger Kloeppel of Three Rivers Electric Co-op, Hannah Larch of Senator Blunt’s office, Sara Stratman of The Maries County Bank, Ray Bogarth of Senator Hawley’s office, Lisa Garro of Heartland Library, and Kelsie Lineback of University Extension.

The county’s broadband committee is new. Its primary purpose is to investigate and make an attempt to figure out what can be and should be done to improve internet access in Maries County. During the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the deficiencies in rural internet and broadband became very apparent. There were people who needed to work from home and students who needed to get lessons online and all the internet inadequacies throughout the county became apparent. 

With federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) coming to local governments very soon, it may be an opportunity to make some much needed improvements to the county’s internet infrastructure using this federal money. Maries County is to receive $1.6 million over a two-year period of time. Maries County has signed up to receive the first installment of $844,645, which it should receive very soon.

Stratman gave some of the details of discussion at the Zoom meeting last week. Internet provider RadioWire is fixed wireless and needs a tower or tall structure with line-of-site to operate. A problem with this is that in Maries County there are very few tall structures. They asked how much it will cost to put up a 100 to 150 foot tower. A rep. from LTD said a 250 foot tower costs about $165,000 to put up so he assumes a shorter one will cost less. Stratman was not sure about acquiring or renting land for the tower. Western District Commissioner Ed Fagre said he’s heard of people in the county who allowed towers on there land and they get free internet. 

Stratman said the internet companies all said surveying the county about who does and who does not have internet would be a benefit to them. Some people don’t want internet, and others have a greater need with work, children, or for pleasure. Eastern District Commissioner Doug Drewel said that would lead to “picking and choosing” who gets internet. 

Fiber optic is “the gold standard” for internet, Stratman said.

Then, later, a man from St. Louis who owns land in Maries County called Stratman interested in the broadband committee. He was talking about Elon Musk’s Starlink and the 1,700 satellites that had been launched as of May 2021. He said 50 to 60 satellites were put up per launch. To do what Musk wants to do to achieve worldwide, non-censorable internet availability will take 10,000 to 30,000 satellites. Fagre said he Googled it and Musk’s internet will cost $500 for equipment and cost a household/business $99 a month. This may seem expensive but some people in Maries County pay even more than this per month for internet access. He said the work already done by Musk’s company has internet availability for the 45-50 degree north latitude. Maries County is at 38 degrees. The service is presumed to be available to people in the northeast, Canada and the UK. 

Engineering pitch

Jon Dwiggins of Macon, representing Howe Company, LLC, was at the meeting to talk to the commissioners about what his company can offer the county with engineering services. Dewiggins is a former Macon County Commissioner. The owner of Howe Company is engineer Shannon Howe. He said the company can do any civil or structural engineering and also does on-call work if they are needed. Charges range from $75 to $180 an hour, depending on who is working on a project. The company is approved by the state. They do 25 to 30 BRO bridge projects a year. Dewiggins works with about 50 counties. They take the project from concept to final inspection. He said they “try to make your life easier.” The company does the project’s land acquisition as well.

Stratman said Maries County has a BRO bridge in the process right now. At first they chose the bridge over Fly Creek on MCR #213, but were told the county didn’t have enough BRO money to do that one. Then they chose a less expensive bridge on MCR #608 over the Little Tavern, even though the Fly Creek bridge was in worse shape. Then MoDOT changed its mind again but they already had begun the Little Tavern bridge project. 

Dewiggins said they will be revamping the BRO program. He’s on an advisory board at MoDOT about it and in August they will have a new bridge list. The way they are qualified will be changed. Receiving a 4 or less on the inspection will qualify a bridge. The list will be shortened from about 2,500 bridges to about 1,000. Maries County has 13 deficient bridge on the old list and may lose five to seven of them on the new list. 

Previously bridges listed as functionally obsolete were on the list. This included bridges with too narrow decks, crumbling rails or poor approaches. The new list eliminates these bridges if they are structurally sound. The money will get reshuffled. The county’s deficiency deck space will be added up and divided against the entire deck space in Missouri. Drewel said most of the county’s bridges are short and he thinks the county’s deck space will be low. Dewiggins said the county may get more because “the pot stays the same size with less bridges.” They will see a change in the BRO program. Structurally deficient are bridges with problems and those that can’t meet load postings. 

Fagre said he has hopes for passage of the federal infrastructure bill. Dewiggins said he hasn’t heard much about. His company is focused on BRO. He’s not sure what will happen with the federal infrastructure bill. Stratman said the region’s transportation advisory committee (TAC) is confident the money is coming and the state has moved projects up. Dewiggins said there are a lot of things going on, a lot of money coming, and much is up in the air about it. “It’s on fire right now, with money coming from all directions.” A problem is there is no sound advice on it yet. Fagre said FEMA operates in the same manner as the opinion you get from them depends on whom you talk to. 

Stratman asked if the Howe Company is competitively priced and Dewiggins responded they are “in the ballpark with it.” He told the commissioners they are seeing an escalation in bid prices. They think it will settle back down in 12 to 15 months, but he said not to be surprised if the new bottom level is 15 to 20 percent higher going forward after that. He asked the commissioners to consider Howe Company for future engineering services, saying, “We can do anything.”

EM planning committee

Stratman reported MRPC’s Tammy Snodgrass will be at the commission meeting Thursday, June 17 at 10 a.m. for the county’s Emergency Planning Committee meeting.

He will speak with EM Director Major Scott John and invites all first responder groups to have a representative at the meeting. They will have an update on what is happening now with plans for the emergency response to weather, flooding, truck chemical spills and more. 

Sheriff’s salary

Sheriff Chris Heitman was at the commission room before the May 23 meeting. He said the legislature passed a bill that raises his minimum annual salary to $72,000. The governor, a former sheriff, is expected to sign it. It also removes the sheriff from the county’s salary commission. 

This is good for the sheriff who will receive a $30,000 salary increase. But, there are many small counties which simply can’t afford this, and Maries County may be one of them. Later at the meeting it was discussed the legislature should not approve bills that increase county expenses unless the legislature appropriates state money to pay for it. 

Buildings and grounds 

County IT Manager Shane Sweno talked to the commissioners about 911 and CAD updates and possibly using the ARPA money to pay for the additional expenses not covered by the 911 grant. He said there is a person coming to give the commissioners a demonstration about what they are doing. It will help the sheriff’s office get computers in squad cards and on the recording side help with records and jail management. 

The bushes at the handicap entrance on the south side of the courthouse were dead and the custodian removed them. Stratman asked if they want to replace them.

The Vienna FFA is making two new benches and that are nearly finished. 

The Vienna License Office painting and new carpet is complete. Stratman asked if they want to move on to the assessor’s office updates. The first step is for them to pick out the paint. 

Ameren sent correspondence stating it will be completing vegetation activities in the county in the foreseeable future. 

Fagre said he thinks the ARPA money will be a better deal than the previous one during the Trump administration. There was $25 billion put out to improve broadband and in Maries County Wisper was to receive $3 million for the work. Fagre said it got tied up in lawsuits. 

There is 30 percent remaining in the propane tank sand the commissioners wanted to order 1,000 gallons. Three Rivers Propane was contacted. 

Stratman said he had several calls about the generator work. He told them they are going to fix the current one but will keep their information in the event they decide to purchase a new generator.

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