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Commission continues focus on broadband net

Towers to increase rural internet access

LEWISTOWN — As broadband internet access continues to increase in importance in Mifflin County, the Mifflin County Commissioners on Thursday received an update on how efforts to expand that access are going from David Gibbons of Centre WISP, an internet service provider who is using money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to install infrastructure in rural areas of the county currently lacking high-speed internet options.

“There were two kind of funding and watershed moments for us in the expansion,” Gibbons said. “The first was the acceptance of a proposal we put in through SEDA-(Council of Governments) to expand broadband this way and the second was a grant approved by the commissioners using some CARES Act funding to implement a report done a few years ago, commissioned by the planning department, called ‘The Broadband Initiative Report.’ So, as part of those two opportunities, we’ve been working very hard to activate our wireless internet service in Mifflin County.

The network was purpose built by Centre WISP to provide wireless broadband access to rural areas. Equipment is placed on existing infrastructure when possible, although occasionally new towers are required, and homes of customers are outfitted with antennas similar to satellite dishes that receive the signal and send it via a wire to a wireless router within the home.

“This service represents a great way to move from, generally, no internet access in a certain area or very limited access to very significant amounts of internet access,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons explained there are currently five towers active in Mifflin County with plans to add “a handful” of towers in the coming months. Gibbons said the company plans to eventually offer download speeds of at least 40 megabits per second to around 70% of the county, with speeds in some areas that can go all the way up to 200 megabits per second.

Gibbons thanked the commissioners and the Mifflin County Planning Commission for their support with the project, but said it has been delayed by challenges related to not only weather, but COVID-19 as well.

Commissioner Kevin Kodish inquired about the River Road area near McVeytown, an area specifically funded by a SEDA-COG grant. Gibbons said service to that area is “coming soon” and would be online within “the next few weeks,” but availability of crews to install equipment on existing towers is limited.

“There was so much CARES Act money from all over the state funneled into wireless internet in particular, you basically couldn’t schedule a tower crew,” Gibbons said. “I’m getting a crew from Maryland to come up and do some work. They’re the only folks that have been available so far.”

Commissioner Robert Postal said expansion of internet access is a point of emphasis for the commissioners this year, not only in Mifflin County, but many others as well.

“The county commissioners association has idenitified broadband expansion as one of its five priorities for 2021 and has been discussing this with political leadership in Harrisburg,” Postal said.

Also on Thursday, the commissioners were presented a yearly update from Allison Fisher, the county’s director of human services.

Fisher highlighted the “Money In Your Pocket” income tax program. Fisher said last year, 277 returns were filed on behalf of people who make less than $55,000 per year. Fisher said the program’s purpose is to keep people with limited incomes from paying too much money for assistance with tax preparation.

“A big part of it is making sure people who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit are actually filing because records say over 20% of people who are eligible for that do not file,” Fisher said. “The name of the program is ‘Money In Your Pocket’ because we want people to have that money in their pockets so they’re spending back in their local economies.”

Fisher said the average tax refund for those who participated in the program in 2020 was $1,062.

“I’d like to point out that the average gross income was $17,381,” Postal said of the program’s participants. “So, you got over a $1,000 average refund for people averaging a little over $17,000. That’s a significant boost.”

Fisher pointed out that many families count on that money to help make ends meet, using the funds for things like paying other tax bills or catching up on the rent or mortgage.

The program is looking for volunteers to help provide services because there is only one staff member dedicated to the project, Fisher said. Volunteers will receive any necessary training.

Fisher also reported the housing stability programs saw “a huge increase in activity this year” due primarily due to receiving of CARES Act funding.

“We had six times the amount of money in housing that we typically have, but, again, all the same staff hours,” Fisher said. “We needed to do six times the amount of work we typically do with the same amount of staff. I’m really pleased my staff were able to see as many people as they were.”

Fisher said 78 households, including more than 200 people, were prevented from becoming homeless through the programs. Fisher also pointed out it took only an average of $336 per household to achieve this.

“For the cost it really is in the community when somebody becomes homeless, spending $336 per household is really nothing, quite frankly,” she said.

One other aspect Fisher discussed was food security. She said the local food donation agencies distributed more than 150,000 pounds of food in Mifflin County in 2020.

“There’s no reason anybody should be going hungry in our community with those kinds of efforts happening,” Fisher said.

Volunteers are also sought for those agencies, Fisher said. Anyone seeking help or looking for volunteer opportunties can call (717) 447-5121.

In other business Thursday, the commissioners:

¯Approved the minutes from the Jan. 7 commissioners’ meeting.

¯Approved payment of bills.

¯Approved exonerations for the 2020 county portion of per capita taxes: 32 exonerations in Menno Township, three exonerations in Bratton Township, 26 exonerations in Brown Township, six exonerations in Wayne Township and three exonerations in Kistler Borough.

¯Rescinded action taken on April 16, 2020 to exonerate Oliver Township Tax Collector Sherry Miller from collecting 2020 real estate tax bill No. 19-000334 in the amount of $8.67 because the tax bill has been paid.

¯Approved a request for exoneration of delinquent real estate taxes and relieved Tax Claim Bureau Director Rebecca Ganoe from collecting taxes on the following properties: Parcel No. 17, 18-0316 in Granville Township because the parcel was immune from taxation from the date of purchase in February 2020 and Parcel No. 15, 04-0200-,017 in Decatur Township because a mobile home was destroyed and it has been removed from the assessment rolls.

¯Approved the contract addendum to the Medical Assistance Transportation Program regarding rates.

¯Approved the 2021 Central Counties Youth Center Agreement in the amount of $272,941.

¯Approved the purchase of service agreement for use, if needed, by Children and Youth with the Centre County Youth Service Bureau in State College.

¯Approved a self-storage rental agreement with Orchard Hills Storage of Burnham in the amount of $140 per month.

¯Approved a training service agreement with SEDA-COG for environmental review training required by Community Development Block Grant projects in the amount of $650.

¯Approved Resolution No. 1 of 2021 approving the first amendment to the cooperation agreement with Derry Township for bridge replacement and rehabilitation.

¯Appointed Lonnie Griffith, of Lewistown, to fill an unexpired term on the Solid Waste Authority, which expires Dec. 31, 2021.

¯Appointed Robert Nulton, of Reedsville, to a four-year term on the Mifflin County Planning Commission, which expires Dec. 31, 2024.

¯Approved the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency 9-1-1 Statewide Interconnectivity Funding Grant Agreement.

¯Approved the hiring of Rhonda Spicker and Logan Wise as part-time corrections officers, effective Feb. 1.

¯Accepted the resignation of Timothy Knepp as a corrections officer, effective Jan. 8.

¯Accepted the resignation of John Appleton as a Children and Youth caseworker, effective Jan. 22.

¯Approved the hiring of Tiffany Parkes as a part-time planning technician, effective Jan. 25.

¯Approved the hiring of Candace Rager as a part-time planning secretary, effective Feb. 1.

The Mifflin County Commissioners’ next meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 4 at the Mifflin County Courthouse in Lewistown. Anyone wishing to attend remotely may do so via Zoom.

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