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Wireless, parks, bookmobile: Council allocates federal COVID relief

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Albany City Hall STOCK PIX 25

Albany City Hall.

Albany residents stand to get better public Wi-Fi access in 2022 thanks to an Albany City Council decision Wednesday to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to upgrade its wireless network.

The council voted unanimously to use some of its federal COVID relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act for the wireless upgrade, increased cybersecurity, more accessibility at city parks, a bookmobile and a generator for a raw water pump station.

Other proposed projects — including $4.5 million for the Cox Creek interceptor project, $2.3 million for improvements to composting capacity and $500,000 to help businesses offset COVID-19 impacts — will be discussed later, councilors agreed.

The approved projects will take about $1.6 million of the $8.4 million coming to Albany through one-time ARPA funds. The city received $4.2 million this past May and is to receive the rest in May 2022.

Councilors had been slated to discuss the allocation earlier this month but held off so all councilors could be present for the Zoom meeting. Councilors decided to return to remote meetings earlier this month following new state mask mandates, and have postponed in-person presentations, such as one that had been planned for Wednesday from Jason Christensen, who has a prototype trailer to aid people experiencing homelessness.

ARPA money can be used for public health, addressing negative economic impacts, replacing lost public sector revenue, providing premium pay for essential workers and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

City staffers asked 26 Albany residents to review and rate 15 projects that fit the criteria. The $40,000 wireless network was the number one choice because it will improve citizen access to broadband and public services at the senior center, library and City Hall, and because COVID-19 has made wireless networks even more essential, according to a city report.

Upgrades are expected to be complete by spring or summer of 2022, but will depend on staff and equipment availability.

The second and third choices for ARPA money use were to upgrade the storage area network for cybersecurity ($300,000) and to purchase the pump station generator ($1 million).

The recommendation to set aside $500,000 to aid businesses was not part of the list brought to councilors Wednesday, but Councilor Dick Olsen asked that it be part of the later discussion.

Mayor Alex Johnson II suggested holding off on the composting capacity project because the city has received a settlement agreement as part of a lawsuit involving CH2M Hill and the Albany-Millersburg Water Reclamation Facility, and the settlement means the improvements may not be necessary. Details of the settlement were discussed in executive session earlier this week and are still confidential.

The Cox Creek project, a large sewer line to be installed in phases from North Shore Drive east under Interstate 5, drew the most council discussion Wednesday. The total project cost is estimated at $13.9 million.

The project is needed to allow continued growth in Albany east of the freeway. Funding the phase through ARPA funds would free up existing sewer capital funds to complete the next phases sooner, staff reported in their recommendation.

Chris Bailey, operations director for the city's public works department, told councilors Wednesday that improvements also are needed for current residents. It's the only place she knows of, she said, where the city has had to install backflow prevention to keep sewage from flowing backwards into people's basements during heavy rainfall.

System development charges could be used to help cover the costs related to population growth, she said, but the problem is not enough revenue is collected to fully pay for the share of debt incurred by that development.

"So one way or another, this project is going to affect ratepayers," she said.

Councilor Matilda Novak said if that's the case, she'd like to have ARPA help reduce the burden on ratepayers. Olsen disagreed. "I think growth needs to pay for itself, at least in part, and I don't think we should dump all that money on Cox Creek," he said.

In other business Wednesday, councilors voted unanimously to adopt a resolution for a supplemental budget that adds $5.4 million to retain police, fire and library positions and increase money for parks maintenance, municipal court needs and the city's contingency fund.

The extra cash is coming from a city services fee that councilors approved earlier this summer to help close the rising gap between income and mostly fixed expenses.

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