County commissioners jump start veterans center with $200,000 gift

By Ralph Echtinaw

County commissioners voted 3-2 Monday to contribute $200,000 to a veterans “Heroes Center” that will occupy the American Legion building on Michigan Avenue in St. Louis.

Though Veterans Affairs Director Nancy Bozzer intends for the Heroes Center to be a self-funding non-profit she needs seed money to proceed, and commissioners used American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide it.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021 to accelerate the country’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession, per Wikipedia. Every city and township in Gratiot County got ARPA money. The county itself got $7.9 million.

Giving ARPA money to the Heroes Center was controversial because commissioners voted 5-0 last March  to keep $1.5 million of the ARPA funds in reserve. Since then they have doled out $750,000 for various projects around the county and have an equal amount remaining.

Bozzer told commissioners the first priority will be to hire a Heroes Center director for $60,000/year with a two-year contract. Her second request was for $125,000 to buy computers, furniture, paint, etc. She also requested $110,000 for a new parking lot, but commissioners rejected that.

Commissioner Jan Bunting made a motion to give $245,000 to the project, which would fully fund everything but the parking lot. But no one seconded the motion. She then reduced her request to $200,000, and Commissioner George Bailey seconded it.

Commissioner Sam Smith reminds everyone that they’ve been sitting on a certain amount of ARPA money to meet unforeseen contingencies. 

Commissioner John Lemmermann noted that state and federal governments already help veterans and that no constituents have suggested to him that the county should join in.

Bailey said his “priority is to hold on to every nickel we can. But I understand the need to help veterans. If we can help one person, and they can be a better person for it, it’s worth $200,000.”

Commissioner Jan Bunting said “The military rises above everything. Doing this is a small thing compared to what they’ve done for us.”

“It’s not about that,” Smith said. “It’s about money and the process. We told 15, 20 people that we shut the funds off.”

Commissioners then voted, and the result was Bunting, Bailey and Commissioner Chuck Murphy voting yes with Lemmermann and Smith voting no.

Bozzer hopes to open the Heroes Center in January. But it will be open just two days a week at first. “This is a long-term project,” she said. “This isn’t going to take off in the first two years. It’s going to be like a five-year project.”

The stated purpose of the Heroes Center is “reconnecting veterans and their families with the community and

directly supporting their physical/mental and legal needs.”

Rural broadband

Commissioners voted 5-0 to hire a company called Wideband to advise the county as it tries to facilitate broadband internet access to rural areas of the county.

The county received four bids for this project ranging from $14,500 to $147,000.

Wideband was the second lowest bidder at $17,000 and was recommended over the low bidder because it has more experience working with townships and counties, said Information Technology Director Matt Hewitt.

Lemmermann, who was involved in the selection process recommended Wideband, too. “They helped me understand this last mile of broadband situation and explained how similar it was to rural electrification,” he said. “I thought they had good track record of getting grants. If we’re going to provide rural broadband throughout the county we’re going to rely heavily on grants.”

Bailey said that many rural children suffered during the Covid pandemic because their internet connectivity was insufficient for the remote learning that government required after it closed the schools.

“Let’s foster this to find out what our options are and get somebody in there that can actually do this,” Bailey said, adding that the folks at the Gratiot Isabella RESD should be involved in broadband discussions, too.

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