Alford residents vote 133-8 for town-wide Internet service

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By Tuesday, Aug 11 News  2 Comments
Heather Bellow
At a jam-packed special town meeting at the Alford Firehouse, voters, some of whom spilled out into the open air, stand and raise their hands to indicate support for a town-wide Internet network to provide phone service and broadband connectivity. The system is expected to become operational in two years.

Alford — In a display of classic New England-style resourcefulness, and in confirmation that even the smallest and heartiest rural towns want and need modern technology, this little hamlet voted overwhelmingly Monday (August 10) to approve borrowing $1.6 million for a high-speed Internet infrastructure and start-up, with service likely to be live with 50 megabytes per second of Internet and phone service connectivity by early 2017.

Town Moderator Michael Forbes Wilcox takes questions during the Alford town meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

Town Moderator Michael Forbes Wilcox takes questions during the Alford town meeting. Photo: Heather Bellow

It was a lively and packed meeting at the Alford Fire House, where town Moderator Michael Forbes Wilcox asked voters to indicate a yes, then a no, by simply standing up.

The count was 133 for, 8 against. Town clerk Paula Doyle counted twice for good measure.

The full $1.6 million was authorized in case of overruns, said Alford Selectman Tim Drumm, adding that two very likely grants totaling $470,000 from The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will bring the total cost down to $1.18 million.

The project involves stringing fiber optic cables along the town’s utility poles, and in the case of some newer households, underground. MBI, with which the town has worked closely, will also help the town choose a contractor for the installation work and a company that will provide the broadband and phone service.

The town opted to tackle the project on its own –– with help from MBI — without having to wait for other towns to get organized within a larger broadband cooperative like Wired West. This way, the broadband committee says, the town will go live sooner than had they joined a collective, though they also say they want to be part of a “regional solution.”

Town Clerk Paula Doyle counts the votes. Photo: Heather Bellow

Town Clerk Paula Doyle counts the votes. Photo: Heather Bellow

But owning and controlling its own network means that the town will alone shoulder the cost of its borrowing. It’s an estimated 3 percent property tax hike. Subscribers will see an estimated $235 yearly increase, but the more subscribers the lower the increase.

The estimated average tax increase would be $102 per year, Drumm said at last Saturday’s information session about the project. The average current property tax in Alford is $3,385.

Town counsel Lucy Prashker said that the town worked to find financing that will keep costs down, and projected that a 20-year bond at a 4 percent interest rate will cost the town $86,000 per year, with an estimated 60 percent of the cost covered by subscribers to the service, and the remaining 40 percent covered by taxpayers.

“We don’t anticipate it costing more,” Drumm said, in response to a question about what happens if it does cost more. No more than $1.6 million can be spent, however, and that is unlikely, say town officials. The broadband committee has stated that their estimates have been “conservative.”

The warrant says the town put a ceiling of $120,000 on annual payments of principal and interest, but because paying off that 20-year bond works out to $86,000, by the town’s estimates, that cap was effectively pulled.

“There is no cap built into this motion,” Prashker said, explaining that the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee will use their “best discretion” to keep costs down. But she also noted that “this vote doesn’t tie them” to these estimates.

Finance Committee member Carl Stewart opposed the measure.

Finance Committee member Carl Stewart opposed the measure.

Finance committee member Carl Stewart said that he was in favor of high-speed broadband service, but objected to the broadband committee’s estimates over “a very significant lack of transparency.” He did not think there were “bad motives,” he said, but later told The Edge that it was the MBI money, or the possible lack of it, that worried him.

“They assume that the MBI grant will be forthcoming,” Stewart said. “There was no promise made.” The broadband committee, he said, “didn’t do those projections.”

“Why couldn’t they have included a worst case scenario?”

Despite moderator Wilcox’s introductory remarks that he would follow the Alford tradition of “unlimited debate,” there wasn’t much — though he did warn that he might change his mind if things got “out of hand.”

That did not transpire. Of the 8 voters present who didn’t think this was a good idea, only one said so.

“You want it, you pay for it,” said Selectman Raymond Wilcox Jr. “70-30 (percent) sounds better,” he added, referring to the 60/40 percent split of debt costs, falling more heavily on subscribers than non-subscribers.

But everyone had their chance to gripe, even if only a few took it. As they filed out into the dusk, most appeared satisfied.

“The purest form of democracy on the planet: Alford, Massachusetts,” said one beaming voter, Tom Doyle.

Voters standing and raising their hands during the special town meeting.

Voters standing and raising their hands during the special town meeting.

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