Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, speaks with Legislative auditor Sam Dodds following his presentation Wednesday at the Capitol of a report on allocation of $48.5 million in federal COVID-19 aid. The money went to 66 broadband projects across the state. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Nearly two-thirds of $48.5 million in COVID-19 funding earmarked for expansion of broadband services to Kansas homes and businesses was invested in upgrading internet connectivity in the southern half of the state, an audit report said Wednesday.
The Kansas Legislature’s auditing arm told a joint House and Senate committee the three southern regions of the state absorbed 35 of 66 grants, or $30.4 million approved by Gov. Laura Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council. The four northern regions took on the balance of the projects, budgeted at $18.1 million.
Overall, auditors said, the state didn’t find a suitable recipient for $1.5 million available for broadband improvements in unserved or underserved locations. State evaluators rejected 16 applications.
Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican in the southeast region that received broadband grants of $5.9 million, said she was concerned some internet service providers may not have been informed COVID-19 relief cash was left on the table.
“I’m not sure we filled the holes or the gaps, looking at this map of where the money was distributed,” said Tyson, who questioned the state’s project vetting process. “It seems like a very poor system to decide who gets what money.”
Auditor Sam Dodds, who presented the report to the legislative audit committee, said the analysis “did not identify any meaningful differences in the demographics between applicants and award recipients.”
Applications for grants were submitted to the Kansas Department of Commerce. Gov. Laura Kelly set up a task force known as SPARK, or Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas, to help distribute the federal relief funding. The task force made recommendations to the governor, but grants were formally approved by the bipartisan State Finance Council, which includes House and Senate leaders.
The goal of the broadband initiative was to support remote education, health care and quality of life applications related to a pandemic that has contributed to the death of 9,027 Kansans since March 2020. All expenditures related to the broadband expansion projects had to be completed by Dec. 31, 2021.
Grants went to 39 companies, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations and nongovernmental entities. Eleven received more than one grant. More than half were for fiber projects, one-third for mobile wireless systems and the remainder for hybrid applications. The median grant award was $412,000.
David Toland, secretary of the state Department of Commerce, said the the program enabled construction of 600 miles of fiber infrastructure in the state. It led to 55,000 new connections to homes, businesses and community entities, he said.
In addition, the secretary said, the funding added 200 towers for fixed and mobile wireless services in 175 cities and 75 counties.
“These connections, miles of fiber infrastructure and services to cities and counties across the state, provided broadband access during a time when it was needed the most,” Toland said.
Here is the region-by-region breakdown: south central, 17 projects, $14 million; southwest, five projects, $11.1 million; northeast, 17 projects, $8.8 million; southeast, 12 projects, $5.3 million; east central, four projects, $5.2 million; north central, eight projects, $570,000; northwest, two projects, $312,000. In addition, the Legislative Division of Post Audit reported a”statewide” category accounted for $3 million in funding.
Overall, IdeaTek Telcom received the largest amount of funding at $14.1 million. It was scattered among broadband upgrades in more than 30 communities.
Other substantial recipients: University of Kansas Health System, $3 million; Kansas Fiber Network, $2.3 million; RG Fiber, $2.2 million; Rainbow Communications, $2 million; South Central Wireless, $2 million; Finney County, $1.8 million; TC Wireless, $1.7 million; City of Chanute, $1.6 million; Cox Communications, $1.3 million; Nextlink Internet, $1.3 million; Twin Valley Communications, $1.3 million; and Butler Rural Electric Cooperative, $1.2 million.
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