Budgets differ over broadband funding

BAR HARBOR — The Town Council and Warrant Committee are bringing separate proposals forward for town meeting consideration in June, after votes Tuesday to reconcile the budgets failed.

The sticking point is $50,000 allocated to a Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) fund for an engineering study of a town-owned broadband fiber network to connect municipal facilities. The Warrant Committee deleted those funds from its proposal.

The council’s budget leaves the funding in place, but councilors agreed there are important questions to be answered before they decide to build the network and/or proceed with the study.

Warrant Committee Chairman John Dargis said the committee voted 11-9 at their Feb. 23 to remove the $50,000 for the broadband study. In another vote, at a meeting Monday ahead of Tuesday’s joint session with the council, a motion to restore those funds failed by 10-5.

Committee member Seth Libby defended the move to cut the broadband study funds, saying the town and the Communications Technology Task Force (CTTF) had not adequately explored all options for improving service. He said the town should have asked for quotes in writing for a service-level agreement from Time Warner and FairPoint, who have existing networks and sell internet access services.

“We sort of skipped over that step,” he said, noting that conversation can be separate from the town’s ongoing negotiations with Time Warner through the multi-town cable consortium.

The $50,000 in the council’s budget resulted from a move to split the $100,000 projected cost of the study over two fiscal years, Councilor David Bowden said. “I agree there are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered. This gives us 12 more months to answer those questions, but we need to keep moving forward. The town of Bar Harbor has never done anything without putting money away first; we try to plan ahead.”

Committee member Erin Early-Ward agreed that splitting the cost over several years is a good idea and could help the town keep its options open. “It’s important to be prepared, versus always having to chase our tails,” she said.

Committee member Jim Mroch said it was new information to hear that the council does not plan to move forward with the study until other options have been more fully explored.

“I can guarantee we’ll get those answers before we come back to you,” CTTF Chair and Warrant Committee member Matthew Hochman said.

Councilors Peter St. Germain and Gary Friedmann both supported the idea of the broadband project in hopes it can boost economic development.

“We’ve heard time and time again, ‘What can we do to bring year-round, sustainable business?’” St. Germain said. “This is the best economic development strategy that I’ve heard come to this council.”

Friedmann compared the broadband debate to the town’s recent decision to approve a contract with solid waste company Fiberight. “It came down to who was a trustworthy partner,” he said. “If any of you in this room think that TimeWarner really has the best interest of the town in mind, I’d like you to show me where.”

Committee member Amanda Kendall, on Tuesday, moved to reinstate the $50,000. That motion failed 7-8. Dargis abstained.

The council voted 4-2 to move the two budgets forward, keeping the $50,000 allocation in their version. Councilors Friedmann, Bowden, Clark Stivers and St. Germain voted in favor. Paul Paradis and Anne Greenlee dissented.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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