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Commissioners: Use $37.2M stimulus to position county for a high-tech future

Life changed during the pandemic — whether we think COVID is real or not, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, whether we wore masks or not, whether we like our governor or not. The world is now a different place, and there’s no going back.

I’ve been working on a post about how Livingston County should spend its American Relief Program stimulus bucks — all $37.2 MILLION of them — on making us the envy of the broadband communities of the world.

That’s $37.2 MILLION, and for the record, it represents nearly 40 percent of the county’s annual budget.

It’s a whole lot of dough.

Creating a high-tech paradise of high-speed fiber-optic broadband from one corner of Livingston County to the next would be an investment with an incredible return for every single resident.

Among the many lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is that internet access is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Just ask those of us who work from home, who’ve learned to work from home, and who’ve learned at home this past year.

We’ve realized the limitations of our internet during the pandemic. Some in Livingston County don’t have decent access. Some of us with access, like me in my downtown Howell home, can’t adequately be in a Zoom meeting in the living room while my kid is attending his university classes upstairs.

The world has changed in ways none of us could have imagined in 2019.

The good news is that we’ve adjusted quite well, using technology to keep connected and do business. Now that we’ve adjusted, life will never, ever be the same. Remote meetings and distance working and learning in various forms are here to stay. With that in mind, think how wonderful it would be to live in a high-tech, high-speed, totally connected community. And what a tool to lure companies and businesses looking for a friendly, high-tech place to put down roots, and people not tethered to a certain job location to move here.

It would be a wonderful, big-picture way to spend the $37.2 MILLION the county is getting from the American Rescue Plan. (And the county’s $37.2 MILLION doesn’t include nearly $19 million going to Livingston County’s local units of government.)

So I checked into Monday’s Livingston County Board of Commissioners meeting to hear if members had any thoughts on spending this one-time windfall, my fingers crossed that they’d be ahead of me on the community broadband issue.

The board was deep into a related issue that ended up consuming it for four-plus hours: whether or not to extend the “state of emergency” for 60 MORE DAYS to enable public bodies to meet via Zoom.

After listening to the call to the public and to the commissioners’ discussion, I realized that had the Emergency Declaration been instead called a “virtual public meeting declaration,” Monday’s epic event would have ended in a quarter of the time.

But to many on Monday, the word “emergency” triggered what felt like a choreographed outpouring of ill- and mis-informed anger by people who didn’t completely understand the declaration covered only meetings of public bodies.

You can read WHMI’s coverage of the meeting by clicking here.

If you’ve got four-and-a-half hours to spare, you can watch the meeting for yourself:

I learned, too, that the board did, indeed, have thoughts about how to spend at least part of the $37.2 MILLION in stimulus bucks, all right. The trouble was, the thoughts were to vote down the emergency resolution — which means no more virtual public meetings for the next 60 days — and use some of the $37.2 MILLION in stimulus bucks to rent a large facility, like Crystal Gardens, to accommodate social distancing.
All this over extending virtual meetings 60 DAYS.

The crush was on for commissioners to vote against the Emergency Declaration, and thus end virtual meetings, and it was a push that felt a lot like delivering a message to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Commissioner Mitch Zajac once again got a dig in on his favorite political boogey-woman by pooh-poohing Ingham County’s vote to extend its Emergency Declaration for 60 DAYS because, after all, it’s in Whitmer’s backyard.

Think about that: Zajac floated an idea to end popular Zoom meetings at a time that Michigan’s COVID numbers are rising dramatically because he thinks Ingham County capitulated to the governor. Then he re-wrote the resolution on the fly to address concerns expressed by his fellow commissioners, which made for even more discussion.

Wes Nakagiri, chair of the Livingston County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged the benefit of Zoom meetings while joining the rush to end them.

Meeting in person is “not as convenient as meeting via Zoom,” Nakagiri said, adding that ending the practice was necessary, though, to “stand up for liberty.”

It was interesting, too, that some of those who spoke against the Emergency Declaration during call to the public did so while pushing carts in shopping center parking lots, or while they were inside their cars. Had these folks not been able to Zoom in, would they have instead given up their shopping trips, commute time, and dinner with their families to drive to Howell and sit through the meeting in person? In a looking-glass kind of world, they made the argument for continuing virtual meetings on a permanent basis better than I ever could.

Thank goodness that as the meeting neared a ridiculous double-feature four hours in length, the question was called.

Voting to end the virtual meetings were Commissioners Nakagiri, Zajac, Doug Helzerman, and Jay Drick.

Voting to continue virtual meetings for the next 60 days were Carol Griffith, Kate Lawrence, Carol Sue Reader, Brenda Plank, and Jay Gross.

The board that took four-plus hours to decide whether or not to continue meeting virtually for 60 DAYS was just a couple weeks ago whining that it wasn’t receiving enough vaccines because it’s Republican and the governor is not (you can read my post on that here); it was considering making masks optional in county buildings a couple months before that; and now, as the number of vaccinations in the county is on the rise, it wants to end virtual meetings entirely.

Consider too that on the very same day, the Pinckney Village Council decided to extend its Emergency Declaration for 60 days in a matter of minutes.

There’s a difference between public service and political gamesmanship.

Attendance at public meetings of all kinds shot up significantly this past year because it’s just so darn easy to do so using Zoom. People don’t need to leave the comfort of their homes or their cars or their happy place to attend; heck, they don’t even need to wear pants.

The lesson for our elected officials is that the easier and more convenient it is to participate, the more people do just that.

It’s exactly like how voting increased in November’s election because it was way easier and way more convenient for voters.

Now, I don’t know how much it would cost to rent out Crystal Gardens and pay for it from the pandemic stimulus bucks — Nakagiri said something about $8,000 to $12,000. And it would very likely qualify as a pandemic-related expense despite my picking nits with it.

But is that a wise use of any part of the county’s $37.2 MILLION in stimulus funds, no matter how small?

Using that money instead to start making Livingston County a high-speed hub would be the very best use of those $37.2 MILLION. It makes sense in a world that is Zooming into the future, and that has learned how to work and learn remotely.

I implore the commissioners to not dribble away $37.2 MILLION in stimulus bucks on anything that doesn’t benefit all of Livingston County, and that doesn’t position the community well for the future, a future of using technology to live life and conduct business in a way that is convenient, beneficial, and easy for us all.

Life changed during the pandemic — whether we think COVID is real or not, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, whether we wore masks or not, whether we like our governor or not. The world is now a different place, and there’s no going back. The reality is that the pandemic changed us all, and the decision about what to do with that $37.2 MILLION in pandemic bucks should benefit us all.

In this respect, we are one, which should make the deciding easy.

Let’s pray that our county commissioners — as well as our local units of government — make decisions on spending what totals $57 MILLION in a way that acknowledges and respects that indisputable fact.


Learn more about the Michigan Moonshot effort to expand community broadband throughout the state.

Check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s website to learn about broadband networks.

Read about Traverse City’s ultra-fast, fiber-optic broadband launch.


 

 

 

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