A question of fairness

Mount Desert voters will consider a proposed bond issue at town meeting this spring to fund the installation of nearly 23 miles of fiber optic and coaxial cable along 31 public and private roads. The goal is to extend high-speed internet access and cable television to areas of town where those services are not yet available. With that expansion, more than 300 additional customers in Pretty Marsh, many of whom are seasonal residents, would have the option of purchasing those services. The proposed expenditure calls for up to $350,000 of town money to be matched by Charter Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable.

The plan includes stringing wires at public expense along private, as well as public roads. Whether that is an appropriate expense of public money needs discussion. All taxpayers in the town, regardless of where they live, will be responsible for repayment of the bonds.

When developers create house lots along private roads in areas such as Pretty Marsh, or summer residents build comfortable seasonal homes in remote areas or at the end of long private driveways, a conscious decision is made concerning what utilities to install. Buyers invest in such lots, and homes are later built on them, mindful of service limitations. The availability of utilities, or the lack of them, is priced into the real estate. Landowners always have the option of spending their own money to improve utility access. Some have done that to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Wires run at town expense would be a generous gift.

Questions of fairness need to be answered before such a public subsidy is approved. What about those who already have paid privately to upgrade their utilities – or those living in other areas of town without improved access? Should they share the increase in taxes?

To make the proposal more palatable, perhaps taxpayer dollars should only pay for the build-out along public roads. The money pledged by the utility then could be focused on private roads and drives. That, however, would amount only to a change in semantics, not establish a town policy for further utility expansion.

Recent studies by the Pew Foundation note the percentage of households served by broadband nationally actually has decreased in the last few years. More and more adults are “cutting the cord,” relying entirely on hand-held devices such as smartphones for internet access. The town’s own broadband study report, issued in 2015, suggested pursuit of enhanced wireless, as the most cost-effective option for making sure everyone in town has access.

Meanwhile, at town meeting voters will weigh the appropriateness of requiring all taxpayers to pick up the debt service for the extension of broadband internet to a handful of residents.

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