By Linda Cicoira
Two dozen local leaders from organizations and agencies across the Eastern Shore voiced their opinions at a town hall meeting Wednesday night in Parksley regarding how Accomack supervisors should spend $6.27 million in coronavirus recovery funds.
The majority said the money should be used to extend broadband as 50 percent of the Shore lacks adequate internet.
“Broadband is no longer an amenity for a few, but a necessity for all,” said Karen Downing of Virginia Organizing of the Eastern Shore.
A member of the Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore compared the need for broadband to the expansion of electric lines in the 1930s. He urged the board to bring the Shore into the 21st century.
Requests also came in for assistance with food insecurity and childcare, to subsidize COVID related losses for the construction of the new Eastern Shore’s main library, for groundwater research, the loss of fundraising for volunteer fire companies, MNS Cultural Center upgrades and children’s programs, for shelter for victims of domestic violence, and to hire back workers at the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce.
The supervisors did not discuss their plans. Chairman Ron Wolff said the topic would likely come up when the supervisors meet at their regular session later this month.
County Administrator Mike Mason said the funds were part of $350 billion being allocated across the country. Local towns also will receive monies ranging from $200,000 for Keller and $3 million for Chincoteague. Mason said the money could not be put in Accomack’s Rainy-Day Fund or for any other contingency fund. In addition, it can’t be applied to debt or used for legal settlements.
“The county is responsible for compliance” of federal regulations and will be closely monitoring the funds, Mason said. County rules will also apply meaning any organization that receives $10,000 or more will have to obtain and supply an audit of its spending.
Supervisor Paul Muhly said the library project was hit hard by the pandemic as workers were struck, construction was delayed, the cost and availability of materials were adversely affected. He asked for $230,000 to be provided to make up the losses.
Former Supervisor Grayson Chesser, a groundwater committee member, said the group plans to prioritize its list of needs including projects regarding aquifer channel recharge figures based on facts not modeling.
Two speakers for Children’s Harbor, a childcare agency coming to the former Fairgrounds restaurant near Onancock, talked about the cost of that facility. The agency needs $500,000 worth of help. Wayne Bell, the program’s CEO said the group received a $250,000 grant of which $90,000 was spent for playground equipment. The nonprofit will serve children six weeks to 12 years old. Ann Williams told the supervisors the area is considered a “childcare desert.” Forty-seven families have inquired about the project and 25 have already signed up, she said. There is a list of children who do not qualify for the local Headstart Program, but their parents aren’t able to pay full price for care. The agency hopes to eventually expand to Northern Accomack and Northampton County, Williams said.
In addition, 25 to 30 jobs will be offered at Fairgrounds. Early childhood students from the Eastern Shore Community College will be helped getting their qualifications and other childcare facilities will be able to obtain continuing education at the new facility.
Two representatives of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce asked the supervisors to take their time deciding what to do and to make long term investment decisions. They want an advisory panel to be appointed with regional representatives.
Several members of the Captain’s Cove housing development, where more than 100 children reside, talked about the need for internet services and told of people moving because they were unable to work, learn, or meet with doctors, from home during the pandemic.
Chief David Fluhart, of Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Company, said when firefighters were unable to offer their annual carnival, they lost 30 percent of their fundraising money for two years. Other local fire departments are having the same problem, he said.
Charmin Horton, of the Food Bank of Southeast Virginia and the Eastern Shore, said there was a 55 percent increase in the number of people seeking help from her agency. “It will take us a million meals to close that gap just on Eastern Shore,” she said. Horton asked the board for $300,000.
The Mary N. Smith Cultural Center asked for a total of $145,000. Director Colby West said children are falling behind in school due to the pandemic. He asked for $30,000 to bring the building to code and upgrade bathrooms to get ready for two programs. Another $65,000 in lost rentals would be used to improve the air-conditioning system and $50,000 would go for the programs offered by Touch Academy to serve 50 to 100 children per week.
The director of the Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence said the organization that sheltered 94 people in 2010 is now averaging 200 people annually. She asked for $250,000 towards a $1 million project that would serve up to 40 people instead of 12-16 clients. Because of limited shelter space, $100,000 was spent on hotel rooms. “The cost is not going to bearable forever,” she added. “We are looking for offices and shelter in one place. Also recognize sheltering people in a small space isn’t the best option for people suffering from trauma.”