By Brandon Martin
Henry County residents are being asked to participate in an upcoming survey which will help identify gaps in communities for broadband coverage.
The survey is part of a larger broadband planning study being conducted by ECC Technologies which has been hired by the county to develop a plan moving forward.
At a recent Henry County Board of Supervisors meeting, Christian Youngblood, director of information services for the county, said the purpose of the study is to answer four questions that will determine the county’s broadband needs, the broadband options already available, where broadband is already available, and ways to make the county’s broadband connectivity better.
“COVID has really emphasized the fact that we need this technology in our area,” Youngblood said. “We need it for our telehealth, we need it for our remote learning, we need it for work-from-home initiatives,” and for other virtual meetings.
By having the study, Youngblood said the county will be able to incentivize current internet providers to offer better options.
“Or, if we are not able to get the existing vendors to step up to the plate, they are going to help us create our own plans to form an authority or some other mechanism so that we are able to serve our own customers,” Youngblood added.
Youngblood said he encourages feedback from both residents and businesses.
“We want you to tell us what broadband you have, what options do you have, what speed, who is the provider, what’s the cost,” Youngblood said. “Most importantly, there will be a comment section where you can tell us what you really feel.”
Youngblood said that current grants are based on Federal Communication Commission maps.
“They have it where if a single house is served within a census block, then they get to go ahead and paint the whole census block off,” he said. “So, if there is a mobile home park and only one home has access to it and the other 49 do not, they still get scratched off and they look like they are served.”
With billions of federal dollars to be spent on broadband in the coming years, Youngblood said that the surveys and studies will position the county to be eligible for available funds.
“We will apply for funding and they will ask, ‘where is your assessment,’” he said. “Without this, we really will not even be able to submit an application, so it (survey) is extremely important.”
In other matters, the board:
*Approved three additional appropriations to the school board for end-of-year instructional purchases, facilities upgrades and employee bonuses. Of the appropriations, two were categorical transfers of $175,000 from Pupil Transportation to Instruction and $140,000 from Administration, Attendance, and Health to Facilities. The third appropriation was $145,032 from the Pupil Transportation budget to the School Nutrition budget.
The money was to fund the cost of bonuses for eligible School Nutrition staff. The school board previously approved a bonus in the amount of $1,400 to be paid to all eligible full time and part-time employees. The total fiscal impact is estimated to be $1,764,544. The bonus is in addition to the $1,000 that was paid to school employees and school board members in November of this fiscal year.
Before the board voted unanimously to approve the appropriations, Dr. J. David Martin, of the Iriswood District, discussed a contention he had with the request.
“In this action, the school board members will be approving for themselves $2,400 in bonuses. Is that correct,” he asked.
Dr. Ben Boone, director of finance for Henry County schools, said that previous $1,000 was federal money used for hazard pay for employees that worked through the pandemic.
“This is something totally separate,” Boone said. “This is a bonus that we are giving to employees full-time and part-time who are current employees that are eligible.”
He noted that the current appropriation from fuel-savings would provide bonuses for cafeteria workers.
“My specific question is that if we approve this, in November and now coming up, the school board members individually will have received $2,400 in a bonus,” Martin said. “Is that a yes or a no?”
“They will have received a stipend in the fall and right now they will receive a bonus of $1,400, yes. So, $2,400 all together, Boone said.”
“I don’t want to be mean about this but when you get elected to a position, you don’t do it for the money,” Martin said. “And, I just have a problem with $2,400 being given to school board members.”
Joe Bryant, of the Collinsville District, concurred.
Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said that school board members had extra meetings, emails and phone calls throughout the pandemic.
County Administrator Tim Hall added that, “as I understand it, this board does not have the ability to tell the school board how to spend its money. It’s either a yes or no on the proposed transfer.”
Martin voted yes on the proposal “because of all of the other employees.”
*Presented a proclamation to the family of former General Registrar Elizabeth Stone in honor of her life of service to the county. Stone was the longest-serving registrar in Virginia, having served from 1979 until the time of her death in 2020.
Vice Chairman Debra Buchanan read the proclamation which stated in part, “Elizabeth Bateman “Liz” Stone personified what it means to be a public servant, having worked for her community for 45 years as Henry County’s General Registrar” and “the Board encourages everyone to emulate Ms. Stone’s lifetime dedication to her community and to the citizens whom she served.”
“I had the privilege of working with Liz for numerous years and there was never a dull conversation, never a dull day and I never failed to not be impressed by how she did her job,” Hall said. “She was absolutely dedicated to doing it the right way.”
Stone’s son, E.C. Stone, and grandson, Matt Duffy, were present to receive the proclamation.
“I know she absolutely loved this place,” E.C. Stone said. “She would rather be here than on vacation which she very rarely ever took a vacation. I wanted to thank everyone on behalf of the family. It was really a nice honor. I know she would really be proud. She put everything she had into this job.”
*Heard an update from Everlena Ross, executive director of Pittsylvania County
Community Action, Inc., on services provided to low-income individuals in the service area which includes Pittsylvania County, Danville, Henry County and Martinsville.
*Heard an update from Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.
*Heard an update on delinquent tax collection efforts from Treasurer Scott Grindstaff. As of April 30, approximately 92.93 percent of personal property taxes and 94.61 percent of real estate taxes have been collected.
*Approved a waiver request to maintain split voting precincts at #203 Horsepasture #2, #304 Mount Olivet, and #505 Dyer Store. Legislation was recently passed requiring each voting precinct to be wholly contained within a single congressional district, Senate District, House of Delegates district, and local districts. The waiver allows the precincts to remain in place until pending redistricting.
*Heard from Lisa Price-Hughes, resident engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation, on upcoming projects. Paving will occur on secondary roads in mid-July on the following roads: College Drive, Stultz Road, Commonwealth Boulevard, Lee Ford Camp Road, Irisburg Road, Bassett Heights Road, Henry Street, Rives Road, and Water Plant Road.
*Heard from Bryant about a Town Hall scheduled for June 24 at 7 p.m., in the Summerlin Meeting Room.
*Appointed the following individuals to respective boards: Lewis Turner, Sherry Vestal and Margaret Caldwell to the Blue Ridge Regional Library Board; Michael Smith and Sandra Adams to the Parks and Recreation Board; Jeff Prillaman to the Planning Commission; Stephanie Tucker, Anita Davis Hobbs and Darrell Jones to the Community Policy and Management Team; Alisha Hill to the Southside Community Action Board; and Garrett Dillard to the Piedmont Regional Community Services Board.