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County employees getting bonus; supervisors OK broadband plan

County employees getting bonus; supervisors OK broadband plan

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ASHLAND — Naughty or nice, all Hanover County employees will be receiving a cash bonus during this year’s holiday season.

The Hanover County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan at last week’s regular meeting that allows county administrator John Budesky to distribute the one-time stipends to all county government and school system employees.

Budesky said the $750 for full-time employees and $375 part-time bonuses represent an effort to reward employees whose merit raises were cancelled this year due to COVID-19 budget restraints.

“Needless to say, 2020 has been a challenging year for our organization, our community, the Commonwealth and the nation,” Budesky said. “One of the things that I’m extremely proud of is the response that our employees have contributed in responding to the needs of our residents in day-to-day operations.”

The county administrator noted that county offices closed only one full day when the pandemic began in March, and Hanover County Public Schools has offered both face-to-face and online instruction for its 16,000 students, one of only 10 systems in the state to do so.

“We believe that we are doing our very best to respond to the needs of our citizens and our community. Our employees have gone well above and beyond in those efforts to address those ongoing needs,” Budesky said. “We’ve come back even stronger and been very agile to meet the needs of our residents in changing environments.”

In order to distribute the bonus allotments, a code amendment was required as well as a change in the personnel policy that authorizes Budesky to distribute the funds. Both measures passed unanimously.

“What we have proposed and are considering if the board considers action on the ordinance and the personnel manual is a one-time bonus that would be available to employees in the amount of $750 for full-time employees and half of that ($375) for eligible part-time employees,” Budesky said.

The county administrator said a number of sources would be utilized to fund the bonuses, including funds reimbursed to the county for expenses incurred during the pandemic.

“The majority of the funds are CARES Act related funds. For full disclosure, there would be other funds contributing to this,” he continued.

The State Compensation Board has provided a fund that would supply funding for some employees, and Public Utilities funding also would be tapped to provide the stipends. A small portion of savings from unfilled vacancies would be included in the bonus funding.

Supervisors pointed out the one-time payout would not affect county taxes and residents are not being asked to shoulder the burden of providing bonuses.

Chickahominy supervisor Angela Kelly-Wiecek pointed out that no tax increases are planned for this year’s upcoming budget process.

“I think the important factor here is that the majority of our employees are not going to get the merit increases we had initially planned. The majority of people that this bonus will go to are the people who are working hard everyday to keep county services going, to keep services functioning in the face of a pandemic, and doing more with less as we have been doing for some time. That includes our teachers, our sheriff’s deputies, our firefighters, the folks who are keeping the recycling center open which were overloaded during the pandemic so I’ll be supporting this,” Kelly-Wiecek said.

Including the school system and county government, more than 5,000 employees would receive the one time payments.

Supervisors are not eligible for the bonus payments.

Board chair Bucky Stanley, Beaverdam District, said a broadband plan presented at last week’s meeting is the third during his tenure and all of them had one thing in common: the lack of a local funding source.

“I’ve been through three different committees during my tenure on the board, and this one has done a great job,” Stanley said. “It’s going to take money to do this and that’s always the challenge. We know it’s going to take some money and I’m willing to work with board members to come up with a solution. I can see some good things coming from this report.

Hanover IT director Kevin Nelson laid out a blueprint for a long-term plan to patch Hanover’s porous internet access, the main component being private/public partnerships with internet providers to attract grant money and other incentives available to localities.

Last December, board members appointed members to the latest broadband committee, who promptly began meetings to address the numerous issues regarding internet access in Hanover. That process was complicated by COVID-19 restrictions, but aided by the expertise of the committee members, including board representatives Sue Dibble, South Anna, and Sean Davis, Henry.

Nelson said the panel was prepared to “hit the ground running” due to the knowledge of committee members and their familiarity with the issue.

“This group came with expertise in the field,” Nelson told supervisors at last week’s meeting. This group … was able to come up with a great plan because many of them are working in this field.”

The group initially sought answers to longstanding questions by studying practical solutions that could provide service to underserved areas, reviewing maps that identified those areas and reviewing existing infrastructure.

Nelson said the committee met with a number of internet providers and designed a test to gauge internet speed connections throughout the county.

“What it’s done for us is give us imperial data so we know where some of the deficiencies are in broadband,” Nelson said. Previous mapping of underserved areas failed to identify some areas with persistent problems and updated maps will assist in future grant applications.

Although internet access issues have been highlighted by the recent pandemic, Nelson said the problem was here long before and will remain long after the crisis ends. Home businesses and people working from home are on the increase in Hanover County, increasing the need for high speed access.

“The solution has to be diverse,” Nelson said indicating a combination of fiber-based as well as evolving satellite-based solutions could provide options. One factor considered by the committee was affordability to lower income residents and its availability.

The group forwarded policy considerations to the board, including seeking public/private partnerships to provide access and creating a new director of Broadband Technology position to further those efforts.

Nelson told board members that those grant applications have the potential for approval when some form of local funding is included.

Regional cooperation, according to Nelson, also could provide relief to some underserved areas and making citizens aware of current efforts to increase access.

Some of those measures to increase local access are currently available include:

n Hot spots at all local libraries.

n Access at some Parks and Recreation sites.

n Access through HCPS and local fire stations.

n Wifi hot spots at the courthouse complex.

n Partnerships with local businesses.

Nelson said the county must have partnership plans in place to ensure grant applications are timely and detailed. When Governor Ralph Northam announced the availability of $30 million in broadband assistance, localities had only two months to apply for the monies.

“You cannot do anything in two months unless you have something already on the shelf,” Nelson said. “It makes the grant look much better if we already have those plans developed but allows us to take advantage of the money.”

The committee welcomed any and all providers to come forward with plans and encompassed what Nelson called an open door policy when it comes to solutions.

“We absolutely will welcome any wired, wireless, satellite internet service provider to Hanover County,” Nelson said. “We will work with you to deploy your solution. We will take all comers. We just want solutions.”

The county is not allowed to provide internet services so “we have to have a partner.”

While the county has pending grant applications with the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), Nelson said all federal and state options should be considered and actively pursued.

He said a 2019 VATI grant was not approved in part, due to a lack of local funding in the developed plan and recommended exploring sources of local funding for future applications.

Ashland supervisor Faye Prichard said it might be a time to rethink the approach to underserved access areas.

“I know where this board had traditionally been on this but the fact of the matter is that we are falling further and further behind our neighbors. It is not competitive for business, and our children are not competitive when we do not have regular internet access,” she said. “I think in the new year we should be looking at what the county can do financially in order to incentivize some of these grants. We cannot support business if we cannot support internet. It may be time to see this a little bit differently.”

Board members have expressed opposition to local funding for broadband access on several occasions in the past.

“There’s not going to be a silver bullet to solve the internet problem,” Budesky said. “We’re going to end up seeing a mix of wired, wireless and potentially satellite solutions in this and part of our work is to develop a plan that will evolve in phases.”

Solutions like the SpaceX satellite-based program could provide answers in the future but the county administrator said “we have an internet access problem today so while we wait for technologies to emerge or be ready, we also have to look at solutions that can start meeting our residents’ needs in the short term.”

Budesky said a plan to provide universal access to all county residents could realistically take 10 years.

The current plan and its recommendations will all require future consideration and study by the board and administration.

“This gives us a blueprint to really deliver for our residents and not just talk about it but how we are really going to implement some resources that really meet the demands of our residents.”

Board members unanimously adopted the committee’s plan.

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