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Internet Coalition, towns court County for fed dollars

By Daniel Dunkle | Apr 27, 2021

The Midcoast Internet Coalition has made a pitch to the Knox County Commissioners to put $7.7 million expected in federal dollars for infrastructure into the coalition’s planned public utility to provide broadband, but some town leaders also want a seat at the table to talk about these funds.

The Rockport Select Board voted April 26 to join Camden in a letter to the commissioners supporting the coalition’s position:

“Gone are the days when for-profit corporations get to decide who has access to distance learning, remote work, telehealth or the opportunity for economic growth and prosperity,” the letter states.

“For this reason, our towns formed the Midcoast Internet Coalition, a collaborative including nine Knox County municipalities committed to a regional broadband utility to deliver high-speed internet.”

“…Federal funds in an unprecedented amount are being provided to counties and municipalities across the country through the American Rescue Plan. These State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds are intended to help our nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, providing resources for state and local governments to invest in infrastructure, specifically water, sewer and broadband. Unlike other areas of the country, counties in Maine are not responsible for traditional infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer. But the County can and should be the catalyst for helping to fund regional broadband infrastructure...”

“…Experiences learned from the pandemic make it clear that broadband is no longer a goal – it is a necessity. Confronting the digital divide, most acute in rural America, requires bold leadership and informed solutions, not a patchwork of fragmented municipal policy.”

Union Town Manager Jay Feyler has also written a letter to commissioners urging them to come up with a formula to share some of the federal dollars with municipalities and allow them to decide where to invest in infrastructure. In the letter, he notes that the county does not oversee major infrastructure as county governments do in other parts of the country.

He acknowledges in his letter that broadband is one of the areas towns might decide to invest the funds, but he wants to allow the towns to decide where the investment would go.

The coalition letter argues, “Although some may urge you to allocate these County funds to municipalities, doing so would dilute the historic impact the funds can have on economic growth and prosperity for the region. Diverting the funds to individual municipalities might even result in those funds making their way into the pockets of for-profit corporations anxious to capitalize on them and once again overpromising speed and availability of profit driven internet service.”

The ball is now in the County’s court.

Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart said, “Knox County has not made any decisions at this time, as we are still waiting for direction and more in depth and solid guidelines from the Department of Treasury. In addition, we need a full understanding of reporting requirements before truly discussing options and direction with management, Commission and public through Commission Meetings.”

Camden has approved putting on the June ballot whether to enter an interlocal agreement with Rockport, creating the nonprofit Midcoast Internet Development Corp. With this corporation formed, the group can begin seeking grant dollars and raising funds for its broadband projects.

The coalition has been joined by Northport, Lincolnville, Hope, Camden, Rockport, Rockland, Thomaston and South Thomaston. It has also been in talks with Owls Head, Cushing, Union, Searsmont and Washington.

Steve Betts contributed to this report.

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