Two years after Gov. Kim Reynolds kicked off her Empower Rural Iowa initiative, the panel is winding down its broadband connectivity task force and creating another to address emergency medical services, which it sees as a baseline expectation for communities outside the state’s metro areas.
“It’s not that we’ve solved connectivity in rural Iowa,” Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg said in announcing the reconfiguring of task forces.
His co-chairwoman, Sandy Ehrig of the Iowa Rural Development Council and the Iowa Farm Bureau, confirmed that, explaining she had to phone into the virtual meeting because she had no internet connection at her Nevada, Iowa, home Thursday morning.
“I think that’s called irony,” Gregg replied before going on to say the task force has reached the limit of what it can do in terms of policy recommendations.
“Now comes down to execution and making broadband connectivity a budget priority,” he said.
Rural broadband will remain a priority for the Reynolds administration.
It will be one of the focuses of the Economic Recovery Board, which Reynolds created to help guide the state’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, Gregg said.
The Legislature approved $5 million in funds for broadband projects, and the state has earmarked $85 million in federal pandemic response funds for broadband connectivity.
Grants will be awarded based on the federal guidelines that allow the state to fund up to 35 percent of projects that increase upload and download speeds as well improve connectivity in underserved areas, Gregg said.
With the broadband baton being handed off to the Economic Recovery Board, Empower Rural Iowa will add an emergency medical services task force.
“This is something that’s been in the realm of discussion but just hasn’t really gotten over the hump yet,” Gregg said.
The Legislature did quadruple state funding for local EMS services to $1.4 million for the current fiscal year.
State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, called that a good start in a difficult budget year, but he’s recommending at least $5 million a year.
Gregg didn’t put a number on what’s needed but said the goal is to make sure that when people in rural communities call 911, “someone’s coming and coming quickly.”
In addition to funding, he’s looking for ways to get more people involved in what are volunteer services in most rural areas.
“It’s a struggle,” said committee member Hollee McCormick of Harpers Ferry in far northeast Iowa. “I’m constantly hearing from communities that they are struggling to replace these longtime members of volunteer EMS services.”
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Bill Menner of Grinnell called the availability of EMS a core baseline expectation of people in rural communities.
“Quality of life has lots of different aspects to it,” he said. “And whether or not your life can be saved at a time of emergency, if you live in a rural area, it’s a quality-of-life issue.”
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