As a Genesee County legislator representing the rural towns of Elba, Byron and Bergen, Christian Yunker said people are constantly coming up to him to ask when they will be getting broadband internet service in their area.
“What do I tell them?” Yunker asked on Monday, pointing his question to Paul Gavin, the just-hired executive director of the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council.
Gavin was at the legislature’s Public Service Committee meeting at the Old County Courthouse to introduce himself and inform the committee of some of the agency’s priorities heading into 2022.
He was joined by Jay Gsell, the former longtime county manager who was employed as G/FLRPC’s interim executive director over the past year, and Richard Sutherland, a planner with the organization that serves the nine Finger Lakes Region counties, including Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming.
Gavin’s reply focused on initiating a broadband internet gaps analysis, which could take up to six months to complete, and then lining up financing, addressing any issues that invariably will pop up, and contracting with an Internet Service Provider.
“I would tell them that we’re at least a year away,” Gavin said, adding that the process would be shortened with the use of local and/or state funds. “(By having to obtain) federal funding, it takes longer.”
Gsell, who was charged with streamlining the agency’s operations in the temporary role, said that Genesee and Wyoming counties have yet to reach a level where they can take a broadband internet plan to a third party (such as Spectrum or Empire Access).
County Manager Matt Landers said Genesee has “already informally set aside a portion of our ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act money) to go toward this.”
“I know that some of our towns are better positioned – and have some funds set aside – to implement it,” he said.
Sutherland said that New York has authorized a broadband gap study for every county, looking for citizen participation to determine internet speed, availability in certain areas and what people would be willing to pay for the service.
He said the state’s Public Service Commission is hoping to complete the study by May 2022.
Landers said Genesee can’t enact a plan without countywide data of where the gaps are with all of its providers – noting that most information is proprietary.
It’s important to know the financial means of the towns and “critical to have that data first,” he said.
Gavin suggested that counties pressure the PSC by emphasizing the urgency in getting something done and to work with the G/FLPLC to implement a strategy that works best.
A Dunkirk native, Gavin is joining the regional planning council after holding a similar position with the Gulf Regional Planning Commission in Biloxi, Miss. Previous to that, he worked for the Port of Pascagoula (Miss.) and Department of Transportation in New York and Nebraska.
He is a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy and St. Bonaventure University. He and his wife and daughter will be residing in the Rochester area, he said.
Gavin credited Gsell for his role in the G/FLRPC’s designation as an Economic Development District.
“That’s important … as it allows you to spend economic development administration funds and, as you know, they’re really flowing from the federal government right now,” he advised.
He said the G/FLRPC is available to assist counties with grant writing, strategic planning, land planning.
“We want you to turn to us and look for us to help you. Yes, you can go to consulting firms and yes, they will do a fabulous job, and yes, you will pay much, much more for that service that we can provide for you,” he said.
Gavin and Gsell said the agency is seeking a 10 percent increase in annual county contributions, from $9,600 to $10,600. The last increase came in 2002.
“The preliminary 2022 budget draft includes many operating expense reductions and continues our long-term history of strategic yet frugal budgeting and cost containment,” Gsell reported.
Photo: Jay Gsell, left; Paul Gavin and Richard Sutherland. Photo by Mike Pettinella.