Town explores federal funding for Island-wide broadband project

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 5:45pm
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There may be some federal monies available for the island-wide high speed internet project.

Town Finance Director Amy Land provided the Town Council with a synopsis of the Broadband Committee’s possible participation in the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Unanticipated factors during the COVID-19 lockdown, including the fact that Block Island School students started online learning back in March, only heightened the need for better broadband service throughout the town.

It was back in December that the council approved the Broadband Committee’s request to enter into contract discussions with Sertex, the company that will design and build the broadband infrastructure.

“At that point you authorized us to move forward in our conversations with Sertex and Crocker [Communications]. We spent that time working on refining the design, the pricing structure, and the final numbers. During that time, it became clear to a lot of people how critical this project is to the island,” Land told the council at its June 22 meeting. “The sense of urgency has only increased since then. At the same time, a new funding opportunity has arrived and that’s through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund…” Land said that this program could provide the town with about $375,000 in annual support over a 10-year period. The Broadband Committee has yet to identify the cost of the proposed project.

Land said the funding source was something the town should “take advantage of.”

She added the application window for this opportunity is from July 1 to July 15.

First Warden Ken Lacoste asked Land about the status of the design of the project. “We are pretty close to a final design from a network engineering perspective. The engineering is pretty far along and the design is fairly well set. We were still spending some time on the pricing structure — which parts are funded by the island as a whole, which parts are funded directly by the property owner, and which parts are just the subscriber of the network,” said Land.

“The authorization you are looking for from the Town Council is the participation and preparations to get into” the FCC’s program, asked councilor Sven Risom.

“Correct, right now we are asking for authorization to participate in the short form application process,” said Land.

Lacoste made a motion to authorize the town’s participation, which was approved.

In order to get the project funded, it still has to go before town voters, which initially would have been done at the regular Financial Town Meeting in May, which was cancelled.

The town needed to “prepare for that question to go before the voters. We wanted to make sure it was on everyone’s radar… it is a short time frame we are looking at. The more questions you have, the better prepared we can be to get to that point,” said Land.

“How soon do you want to do that?” asked Lacoste.

“The next week to two weeks would be great. We [the Broadband Committee] were waiting to hear what the council’s schedule was,” answered Land.

The council agreed to set a date for Wednesday, July 1 for continued discussion with the Broadband Committee.

In the red

Land identified four town departments that will have “projected over-expenditures at the end of the year above their appropriated budget levels.” The fiscal year ends July 31. 

Land noted the following four departments to have over expended are: Fire and Rescue for a planned over-expenditure of $12,500; the Police Department is projected to have a $64,000 over-expenditure; G.I.S. Technology is projected to have a $33,000 over expenditure; and debt service for Block Island Power Co. is projected to have a $17,654 over-expenditure.

Lacoste made a motion to make appropriations for the over-expenditures, which was approved.

Projects on hold

“This was normally where we carry things over for projects, that either didn’t get started or maybe had some changes and we needed to hold those funds for another year. This year I am not asking you to authorize any carryovers. That’s because any projects that aren’t currently underway would have to be re-appropriated in the future,” said Land. 

She identified in her memo to the Town Council the projects she recommended letting go: the locker project at the Hospitality Center, the paving of West Beach Road, and the New Harbor Visions study.

Lacoste made a motion to release the funds that have been on hold for the projects and return them to the town’s general fund, which was approved.

The New Harbor Visions “was designed to address concerns about congestion, traffic, the services that the town wants to provide” in New Harbor, said Land.