CAIRO — Broadband and water contamination were at the top of the list of concerns raised by local residents Wednesday during a town hall meeting held by U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado at Angelo Canna Town Park.
Delgado, D-19, held his 61st town hall meeting since he was sworn into office in January 2019.
The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, provided funding for states and local municipalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many were left out of the funding stream, Delgado said.
“If you were a community less than 500,000 in population, you didn’t get any direct funds. None,” Delgado said. “NY-19 is the eighth most rural congressional district in the country, out of 435. The biggest town in this district is Kingston — all 23,000 folks. We don’t have a county that has over 500,000. That means we didn’t get a dime.”
The American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in March 2021, provides COVID stimulus funds to all municipalities, including $400 million to the district and just over $9 million to Greene County, with Cairo getting about $70,000, Delgado said.
The first question from the audience was about how the stimulus funds can be spent.
“It doesn’t look like Greene County knows what to do with this money,” resident Scott Myers said. “They can’t use it to pay debt, they have to use it for active and current projects, is that correct?”
There are many permitted uses for the money, Delgado said.
“When we were devising this, it was very important, based on discussions I had with folks across the district, that we do everything we can not to handcuff folks on the ground with mandates or contingencies on how the money can be spent. It defeats the purpose.”
Stimulus funds can be used for infrastructure, wastewater management, supporting nonprofit organizations and small businesses, addressing the financial impacts and lost revenue sources due to the COVID outbreak and more, but it cannot be used to pay down debt, Delgado said.
“That might be a little too broad, but any revenue you lost that you would have been able to use to pay down that debt, you can use it for that purpose,” he said.
Resident Charles Lake inquired about the lack of quality broadband access in the county.
Broadband is a concern in all corners of the district, Delgado said.
“It is a basic necessity — it is like electricity was a hundred years ago. Same exact thing,” he said. “What did we do then? We passed the Rural Electrification Act and made sure that no matter where you lived in this country, you got it.”
The nation needs to do the same for broadband, he added. One problem is how broadband access is mapped to determine who has it and who doesn’t, Delgado said, adding he introduced legislation to address the problem.
“A lot of people are being told they are covered when they are not covered because they use census block mapping. So if you own a home on the census block that is covered, it shows that you are covered,” Delgado said. “But if you are in a rural community, you could have farms in between, you could have cows and rivers and ponds and lakes that you wouldn’t have in an urban setting. That type of mapping is fundamentally flawed and yet it is the mapping process used at the federal level to decide who has it. It is also used at the state level.” Resident Debbie Seidner asked what is the timeline for making sure everyone has high-speed broadband access.
“I live on a long three-mile road — no internet access, no DSL, no cable, no fiber, no nothing,” Seidner said. “Everybody has satellite TV, but if you have too many trees on your property, you are out of luck.”
Part of the problem is that companies look at their bottom line and consider how much it would cost to wire rural areas and what their return on investment would be, and the numbers don’t add up for them.
The Rural Electrification Act was a public works investment project that used taxpayer dollars, Delgado said. Providing universal broadband access could be done with taxpayer dollars or through public-private investments, which have become increasingly difficult, he said.
“By and large, that has become more difficult to do because these companies are so big now that they don’t care,” he said.
The federal stimulus funds coming to municipalities can be used for broadband projects, he added.
Lake and Cairo Town Councilman Jason Watts asked about contaminants found in municipal water supplies, such as Cairo’s, including PFOAs, or perfluorooctanoic acid.
Water contaminants are a broad problem in the district and nationally, and have proved frustrating, Delgado said.
“This has been an issue for a long time and it is a dangerous toxin — it causes autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, liver failure, really bad stuff,” Delgado said. “I fought like hell to try to get a maximum contaminant level set in my first term and all I kept hearing was we need more data, we need more evidence, but the fact of the matter is that it is clear.”
Federal officials told him more work needs to be done on the issue, but Delgado refuted that.
“What do you have to figure out? We know it hurts people, we know it harms people’s lives, why can’t we address it?” Delgado said.
The town has faced similar problems, Watts said.
“It is very tough for us to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars for a filtration system,” Watts said.
Watts also asked about a geological find discovered in Cairo in 2019.
“The town of Cairo owns the oldest fossil forest in the world,” Watts said. “It puts us on the map. We cannot afford to protect it and we need help beyond the state to protect it.”
Delgado said he has been working with members of the Greene County Legislature to find a solution.
“We are working to figure out ways to track down grant money, conservation funds and ways to help the community make it more of an attraction so you can bring in more foot traffic and tourism,” Delgado said.
Resident Doug Pneuman asked about economic development and how Cairo can increase its opportunities in the same manner as Coxsackie has done.
Delgado responded that he introduced the Rebuild America Act that would make $50 billion in funding available exclusively to rural communities for economic development.