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INDEPENDENCE — By a vote of 3-2, the Grayson County Board of Supervisors last month appropriated a portion of the funding needed to keep the Grant Community Computing Center open through the end of February.
The supervisors appropriated $4,000 to keep the center open through part of February. In the meantime, the center’s staff and the Grant community will have to form a plan of action for becoming more self-sustainable to keep it open beyond that point.
The center, located in Troutdale near Grayson Highlands School, has operated entirely through federal grant funding since it opened in January 2012, and has been providing free computer lab access with broadband internet and other services to citizens of rural western Grayson.
A report read to the supervisors said that the center averages 624 visits per month and has 798 registered users.
At the December 2013 meeting, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet recommended that the board appropriate $19,712 for the center, which would have allowed it to stay open through June 30. Additionally, Sweet suggested supervisors should request for the Wired Road Authority to transfer assets from the center to the county, which would include equipment and software valued at approximately $27,500.
“In essence, for the sum of $19,712, we would be acquiring $27,000 worth of furniture, equipment and software,” Sweet explained. “And that would give staff and the Grant community six months to put together a plan of action to further expand the service offerings and to further add value, as well as to find new revenue streams to help offset the cost for the county to fund this program.”
Supervisor Glen Rosenbaum, who was elected to the Wilson District seat in the November 2013 election and was serving in his first meeting, expressed that he didn’t have the information to vote to fund the center.
“That falls in my district, the Grange, and I just don’t have enough information to give the taxpayers’ money to the Grange to get them through June,” he said. “But I am prepared to make a motion to give them $4,000 to get them through February to where they can get information to me. This is hard-earned taxpayer dollars we’re talking about, and I’m not going to give money away.”
Rosenbaum clarified that he was, in fact, making a motion, even though calculations showed that it would cost only around $3,000 to keep the center open for one month.
Supervisors Chairman Kenneth Belton disagreed with Rosenbaum’s decision.
“This has been open for two years and we don’t know if it’s helping the county?” Belton responded. “Those people need that place. That’s a drop in the bucket, really, for what those people are getting,” Belton said of the funding.
Supervisor John Brewer said he understood Rosenbaum’s wanting to make an educated decision, because it was Rosenbaum’s first meeting.
Sweet said he would need to talk to the Wired Road Authority to ensure that the county could still be able to acquire the center’s assets under a shorter deadline, as negotiations are still in progress.
Supervisor David Sexton said he also needed a better understanding of the situation and wanted to ensure the county didn’t end up overpaying for the center to remain open.
“If we acquire those assets, appropriated for $19,000, now all of a sudden we’re on board come June in budget time and we’re not talking about $19,000, we’re talking $50,000 to fund that community center,” he said. “I’d like to put $50,000 in every community center around the county if we could afford it, but the taxpayers in Grayson County can’t afford that kind of debt.”
Sweet reiterated that, if the center could begin creating its own revenue to offset the operational costs, the county would likely be contributing less in the future to keep the center open. “Per the federal grant, they weren’t allowed to charge fees because it had to be a public facility that you couldn’t sell memberships to,” Sweet said. “Now that the federal grant’s expired, it opens a new opportunity for the center to generate new revenue streams and be more creative with how we utilize that facility.”
After further discussion on the matter, the board voted 3-2 to fund the center through the end of February with the $4,000. Rosenbaum, Brewer and Sexton voted in favor, with opposing votes coming from Belton and Brenda Sutherland.
(This was the third action at the December meeting decided by the same three supervisors overruling Belton and Sutherland. The other votes were to repeal the county’s zoning ordinance and to disband the county’s recreation policy advisory committee.)
Belton and Sutherland made it clear they agreed with the original proposal that would have funded the center through June.
“I made my decision because we’ve had it for two years and we ought to know if it’s going to work,” said Belton. “That’s what tax dollars are for is the community, whether it’s Grant, Baywood, Fries or wherever the citizens need it.”
Brewer said he agreed that there was no question about the center’s worth to the community, but he was concerned about the cost. “The struggle is over the amount — projected revenue vs. the expenditures,” he said. “We can’t put $50,000 into every community center. The taxpayers simply can’t withstand that burden.”
During the public comment portion of the December meeting, six users of the computing center and members of the community took the opportunity to plead the case for funding the facility.
Gloria Price spoke on behalf of the Virginia State Board of Elections and told the supervisors that the facility allows for online training for people to become officers of election.
“Many of them do not have an email address, and I’m assuming that’s because many of them don’t have computers,” she said.
Price explained that SBE now sends all of its notices online and requires its officers to keep up with its latest updates. “We really would appreciate any support you can give for that service.”
Freda Hutton, a past master of the Goodwill Grange, recalled how the center came to be, and told of how Grange members helped to set up for the new service. She remarked about the strong working relationship between the Goodwill Grange and the Grant Computing Center.
Hutton said she is also one of the many students who utilizes the center. “It has allowed me to go back to school to become a teacher myself.”
She has seen students from Grayson Highlands School come to use the computer center. “It’s not just adults in there, it’s school kids who don’t have a way to work on their computer assignments at home,” Hutton said. “I have seen small business people around our community, which was [former Supervisor] Mike Maynard’s dream, for those people to have a place to come and work like the rest of the world, even though we live in the mountains that we love,” she added.
Nicki Weir, a resident of western Grayson County and a user of the center, praised the facility for its helpful staff and volunteers.
She said that people depend on the center for their jobs. “Mostly, what I want to say is this isn’t a community center only,” she said. “The computer center isn’t going to throw bake sales and breakfasts. This is something different. This is a community service that we need.”
Weir said that citizens’ tax dollars at work may not always be visible, but they are intended to be used for important community services like schools, parks and the center.
“We’re seeing wonderful things in the county that our taxes are paying for,” she said. “But it makes me proud to be part of a community that now has a computer center, farmers markets and so much more. In the last few years, this county is coming together, and it’s beautiful. So let us keep our computer center.”