Commissioners End Mask Mandate, Seek Grant to Boost Broadband

Participants in the Feb. 15 meeting of the Wyoming County Commissioners, including (from left) solicitor Paul Litwin III, commissioners Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur, and Ernie King, and chief clerk Bill Gaylord were mask free after the board voted to end the county’s mask mandate policy.

By Rick Hiduk

(Exclusive to readers)

The Wyoming County Commissioners reported on Feb. 15 that they have been working with U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. to secure a USDA Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program grant to make significant infrastructure improvements to attract communications companies to the county. If successful, the $5-million in federal funding will extend existing connections into rural areas to make it more economically feasible for commercial carriers to complete hookups to homes and businesses.

According to commissioner Tom Henry, a previous grant application submitted by the county was denied because it didn’t address the “last mile.” Most companies, commissioner Ernie King added, require 25 hookups per mile to provide service, and much of Wyoming County has six potential hookups per mile or less.

The ReConnect (aka – Rural e-Connect) plan works differently, furnishing both “loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.” Many of those who do have internet, King noted, are being served through old copper wires, which reduces the quality of the signal. The projected hybrid broadband system will combine wireless transmission with fiber-optic cables.

Commissioner chair Rick Wilbur further explained that, if successful in obtaining the grant, the county will provide a 10 percent match ($500,000) in ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds to first ensure that the county’s 911 system has adequate coverage in underserved areas.

ARP Spending Questioned

Wilbur noted that the rules for use of ARP money are becoming clearer, and the county is getting ready to announce some eligible projects for which the funds can be used. That amount is also $5-million. Later in the meeting, two women participating virtually voiced concerns that the public hasn’t been adequately engaged in helping to decide how the money will be used.

A lot of good things can be done with five million dollars,” Nancy Thaler of Nicholson remarked. “This is an opportunity to build confidence and trust in our government.” She suggested that it might also be a good exercise for high school seniors to propose effective uses for the funds. According to her Facebook page, Thaler is a former state employee, having served as deputy secretary of the Office of Developmental Programs at the PA Department of Human Services.

The commissioners reiterated that there are restrictions on how the money can be used but welcomed Thaler’s comments and said that, while there has been no public hearing on ARP, they have been fielding suggestions from constituents and welcome any county resident to contact them via email. Email addresses for the commissioners are: thenry, eking, and

Prison Updates Provided

During a brief Prison Board meeting that preceded the regular commissioners meeting, warden Ken Repsher reported that prison population is down slightly with four more releases than intakes over the past month. The ongoing threat of COVID and the need to quarantine prisoners has maxed out the space available at the correctional facility and required the use of the jail’s library as a hearing room. Inmates have been able to use their iPads to access resources at the Tunkhannock Public Library, from which they can borrow books. Some have also purchased books online that are delivered to them at the prison.

Newly elected district attorney Joe Peters was participating in his first prison board meeting and took a few minutes to address the board. He complimented the commissioners on their ability to achieve common goals in a bipartisan manner and pledged to work with them to find more resources to better prepare inmates for release. By also addressing mental health issues, Peters said that his goal is to reduce prison population “appropriately” by leaving those released in a “better position to move their lives forward,” a benefit to their families and society as a whole.

During the regular commissioners meeting, commissioner Wilbur mentioned that they had recently met with Judge Shurtleff, the DA and the public defender to get some inmates out of the system who are dealing with major medical issues. While those who are sent to state prison can continue to use Medicaid for doctor’s visits and treatments, Medicaid for those sentenced to county facilities is cut off, he explained.

That can cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Wilbur stated. The judicial branch was able to work out plea agreements with and the release of an undisclosed number of inmates whom Wilbur described as “sick and bedridden” but “no threat to society.”

Courthouse “Open for Business”

As the number of new COVID cases continues to fall in Wyoming County and across the country, the commissioners voted to rescind their ongoing mask mandate policy, effective immediately. As the board members and other in attendance removed their masks, Wilbur stated that those who feel more comfortable wearing masks may continue to do so. He also suggested that people continue to schedule appointments with the departments from which they seek services, but it would no longer be mandated. “We are open for business,” he stated.

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