Editorial: Petersham deserves help to cross broadband finish line

Published: 11/13/2018 9:27:29 AM

The small towns in the western half of the state have been waiting patiently for years to get community-wide, high-speed broadband Internet access. The day is coming soon when virtually anyone in these towns will be able to order up broadband and tap into the cyber world from home.

And the state government is about to help Petersham over the finish line.

But first, the town’s taxpayers have to front the money that’s still needed: another $800,000.

Petersham taxpayers almost two years ago shelled out $560,000 to start building a townwide broadband network. Of that amount, nearly $471,000 has been spent, with another nearly $58,000 earmarked for pending expenses. More than $200,000 of the money already went to Verizon and to National Grid for so-called make-ready projects that allow for a fiber-optic network to be strung along the utilities’ infrastructure in Petersham.

Now, the Selectboard and Finance Committee are recommending Special Town Meeting voters take the next step. At a meeting scheduled for Nov. 19, town officials will ask the voters to approve an $800,000 Proposition 2½ debt exclusion to fund completion of the broadband network. If that sounds like a lot money on top of the $560,000, it’s good to hear the state has promised to reimburse this second tranche of cash.

Broadband MPL Board Chairman Chip Bull told the Selectboard and Finance Committee recently that his panel was close to hammering out an agreement with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for the state to reimburse the town $880,000, thus covering the cost of the debt exclusion borrowing. Bull said the state wants the town to complete the town-wide broadband network, an entirely fiber-optic system, before state money is forwarded to the town.

“If the debt exclusion passes we would anticipate the state reimbursement to come to the town sometime late next year, probably in November or December,” said Nancy Allen, chairman of the Selectboard and a member of the Broadband MPL Board.

The $800,000 would cover remaining make-ready costs — $231,759 for Verizon and $448,389 for National Grid — as well as $129,075 for additional National Grid licensing costs.

The $800,000 debt exclusion will require the approval of two-thirds of those voters who show up at the special town meeting — and it will require ratification by a simple majority of voters in a followup election slated for Dec. 10

Many times when Proposition 2½ debt exclusions are sought for special projects, backers of the spending pack a town meeting and get the necessary two-thirds, only to see opponents turn out for the follow-up election and deep-six the plan.

In this case, since the borrowing is short-term and it looks like the state will reimburse with enough to cover first-year borrowing costs, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t approve this at both the town meeting and town election — which is what we recommend everyone do.

High speed internet access is to the 21st century what electricity was at the turn of the last century: indispensable to modern life. Homes without broadband will lose value in today’s real estate market. The town’s leaders and voters understood that when they financed the first phase of this network. And now it would foolish not to follow through — with state tax dollars.

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