Survey results out this month from Polco found that Lewis County residents believe investments in broadband internet infrastructure and economic aid to small businesses, as well as services and programs promoting healthy childhood environments, are among the highest priorities as the county considers how to best invest portions of its $15.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
Late last year, Lewis County commissioned two countywide surveys to engage constituents on how the funds should be spent. A total of 891 residents and 204 managers or business owners responded to the pair of surveys.
Participants were surveyed not just on what they believed was the highest priority for spending, but also on quality of life, government performance, economic impact and outlook, and challenges brought on by the pandemic.
The county plans to again survey the public later this summer, said county spokesperson Austin Majors.
“Part of this is getting the public’s perception on how these things are going, and so being able to see if any of those perceptions are changed or impacted by the work that’s currently being done would be something we’d want to be aware of as well,” Majors said.
The county received the first half of its ARPA funds — approximately $7.83 million — last May, and will likely receive the second half after May, Budget Manager Becky Butler said.
The American Rescue Plan Act is a congressional stimulus package that was originally passed early last year designating $350 billion in local investments, coming off the heels of the previously-passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
ARPA funds, which have been distributed down to local governments, may be used to either support the public health COVID-19 response, replace public sector revenue lost, make investments in water-sewer or broadband infrastructure, address negative economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, or offer support to essential workers, according to a fact sheet from Lewis County.
At an ARPA update meeting hosted by the Lewis County Board of Commissioners last week, Commissioner Lee Grose — whose district encompasses the wide ranging, rural East Lewis County — said he was surprised to see broadband at such a high priority for residents and business owners.
“That should give us some direction,” Grose said from his home in Packwood, as his internet connection cut in and out. “We definitely need better broadband up here.”
The survey results largely focused on county residents and local business owners.
Among the most essential funding categories for resident survey participants were “investments in broadband infrastructure,” “services or programs to promote healthy childhood environments (e.g., expanded child care, enhanced services for child welfare-involved families and foster youth),” and “economic aid and assistance to small business and nonprofits experiencing financial hardships due to the pandemic.”
Business owners also said broadband investments were a priority, but instead prioritized “services to address behavioral health care needs increased by the pandemic (e.g., mental health treatment, substance abuse services, hotlines, etc.)” and “financial aid to high poverty school districts to help reduce gaps in educational achievement.”
Among residential participants, 69% agreed broadband investments were either “essential” or “very important.” For business owners, that number was at 81%.
Majors said both residents and business owners are acutely aware of the need for robust broadband deployment in Lewis County. Both local business owners and residents surveyed had considered each others’ needs too, Majors said, evident in the high importance placed to both local business stimulus and investments to behavioral health services.
“Not only was it something they were considering, but something that popped up under the most-important funding categories. So, the residents identified that about businesses, and businesses identified that about residents under the most-important funding categories,” he said.
Business users want to utilize funding to reduce gaps in educational achievements through financial aid to high poverty school districts. Almost two-thirds of business survey participants rated that investment as “important.”
Both populations also identified the economy and utilities as among the lowest-quality attributes of Lewis County, but among the most-important categories personally.
About 34% of residents said they felt the economy would have a “somewhat negative” or “very negative” impact on their family income over the next six months, while about 49% said it would have a “neutral” impact. When asked that same question, roughly 52% of business owners said the economy would have a “neutral” or “somewhat negative” impact.
For both businesses and residents, Lewis County continues to score high among its “natural environment,” “parks and recreation” and “safety” attributes.
Lewis County residents said it was “essential” or “very important” to focus on the economic health of the county (81%), quality of infrastructure including water-sewer and broadband (84%), and overall safety (77%) over the next 12 months.
Households have also struggled with finding affordable, quality housing. About 41% of residents said it was a “major” or “moderate” problem during the pandemic, though about 22% replied the question was “not applicable.”
Roughly 31% of residents in the survey said they were renting their housing, while 69% said they were homeowners. While rental prices remain low relative to other counties in the region, according to previous Chronicle reporting, the supply remains crunched, and about one in four renters are paying 50% or more of their income on housing costs.
Currently, about 62% of Lewis County business owners reported that a decline in business or sales was either a “minor problem” or “not a problem at all.” About 15% said it’s currently a “major problem.”
But earlier on in the pandemic, the picture is much more varied.
More than one-third (34%) of businesses surveyed said they experienced a revenue shortfall of 10-24%, while more than one in four (26%) reported a “serious shortage” of 25% or greater.
“Major problems” for businesses continue to be a shortage of skilled employees (35%), affordability of broadband internet services (30%) and access to broadband services (35%).
Since the start of the pandemic, about 73% of businesses surveyed reported they hadn’t had to lay off of their workforce.
Of the 204 businesses surveyed by the county, an overwhelming majority were small businesses (88%), with one to nine employees (72%) and based locally (96%). Most reported being in either manufacturing and production (27%); professional services such as business, finance or tech (21%) or in retail (15%).