Expanding broadband options and its affordability in the area was a high priority among many other issues for city and schools officials expressed Monday night to local legislators for the 2021 legislative session.
Sequim city councilors and Sequim School District board directors met in a virtual work session with Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-Port Townsend) and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim); State Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) was unable to attend because of a personal commitment.
“(Broadband) is not just a local issue — it affects every city and every school district across the state,” city councilor Brandon Janisse said.
“If we don’t have (high speed internet) here, we’re not going to have that opportunity to attract those state jobs … without those amenities we’re not going to be competitive.”
Sequim School Board director Jim Stoffer said it’s important for the district to connect students and staff and reach lesser served areas with better internet.
Dr. Jane Pryne, the Sequim School District’s acting superintendent, said staff recently wrote a grant for 140 hot spots for families to access the internet and they’re “hopeful that when we send these out they will work for them.”
She said the district has also offered an internet cafe with social distancing and sanitized spaces for students without access to come in and work on school work.
“It’s such an unusual time for everyone. We don’t want the gap to widen,” Pryne said.
Tharinger said it’s helpful for state leaders to see communities align their needs.
“Broadband, it’s on everyone’s screen,” he said. “At the legislative level it’s going to really focus on that.”
He encouraged city staff to gather information from an ongoing broadband study by community partners and share it with him and other legislators in 2021.
“I’m glad we’re focusing to find those (internet) dead spots, so we know what those costs might be,” Tharinger said.
Those unable to take the speed test can provide that information by emailing to email@example.com.
For the next legislative session, Tharinger — chair of the House Capital Budget Committee — said it will be almost exclusively remote and will limit how much they do with the number of bills dropped “cut drastically.”
“In some ways that’s good news,” he said. “Then we get to focus on budgets and what’s really important.”
Tharinger said it’ll be hard to complete large policies so they may look at this as a two-year session.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, fewer school districts are running less bonds for new buildings and more funds may be freed up for other school projects, he said.
Tharinger said capital budgets typically include at 30-year investments, but because of COVID-19 legislators may change course to help mitigate the virus’ impact on school districts, and possibly may look at broadband expansion for schools and families.
Stoffer said the district is considering a capital projects levy in February that includes items such as connecting Greywolf Elementary to the Carlsborg sewer system. He said they’ll discuss the possibility of available funding soon.
City leaders continued to advocate for the US Highway 101 East Sequim Corridor Project that completes the U.S. Highway 101 Simdars interchange and reroutes Happy Valley Road and Palo Alto Road to East Brownfield Road.
Mayor William Armacost said it “continues to be a high priority, both from a safety and an economic development standpoint.”
City officials and community partners are seeking $26 million and hope to partner it with the Johnson Creek culvert repair project to save in state funds.
“We’re confident that in the upcoming session you’ll be able to work your magic,” Armacost said.
Tharinger said Chapman has more knowledge of the issue than him, but they plan to keep advocating for the project. He said COVID-19 has “really cut into the revenues for transportation,” but “the needs are still there.”
“I think you will see some kind of transportation package, but I don’t know what that will look like,” Tharinger said.
He said they’ll try to meld Johnson Creek and the corridor project together.
City officials discussed a Federal Funding Exchange Program that would swap federal Surface Transportation Block Grant funds for state funds so rural counties can do more projects, like chip sealing roads.
Sequim Public Works Director David Garlington said city staff often avoid federal funding because of the administrative hassle with paperwork.
“We’re using half the money on red tape, and we have limited bandwidth of the amount of people working in the city, too. We can’t spend all our time filling out papers,” he said.
“This is a way through efficiency to get more projects done with the same amount of funding that exists right now.”
Tharinger said he, Chapman and Van De Wege support the project because “it makes a lot of sense” and he’s unsure why it hasn’t been pushed forward despite efforts for several years from counties.
Sequim School District officials ranked their top 15 priorities; they include funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is a state mandate with no funding, they said.
Another two school priorities from the state were fully funding basic education and creating more support for special education.
Larry Jeffryes, a Sequim School Board director, said all state school districts have similar priorities and that meetings like these are important because the “health of the school district is dependent on the city and vice versa.”
Tharinger said working together “just makes a lot of sense.”
“It certainly helps us, so we don’t have to choose between our kids who gets what,” he said.