The Kewaunee County Board on Monday removed a $1 million allocation for high-speed internet expansion from the 2019 budget, but even those who voted to take the money out said they’re committed to acting on broadband early in the new year.
Supervisors approved a $22.8 million budget funded largely by a $12.09 million property tax levy. The tax bills that arrive next month will assess taxpayers $7.25 per $1,000 of equalized value. The owner of a hypothetical property valued at $100,000 will be asked to pay $725 for the county’s portion of the bill.
All four of the people who addressed the board during the public input section of the meeting spoke in favor of the $1 million allocation, which would come not from the tax levy but out of an economic development fund generated from the proceeds of the settlement with Dominion Resources, former operator of the decommissioned Kewaunee Power Station nuclear plant.
The board’s Personnel, Advisory and Legislative Committe – comprised of standing committee chairs – had voted 7-1 to remove the funds from the budget, but the Finance & Personal Property Committee voted 3-2 Friday to leave them in.
Kim Larson, interim executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. (KCEDC), cited a new survey that she said indicated more than 60 percent of local businesses say their internet is not sufficient.
“The huge majority thinks that high-speed internet is the most important thing or a top priority or at least essential to their business,” Larson said. “The vast majority are not happy.”
Art Schiller of Kewaunee said his home provider, AT&T, says its aging equipment can’t support faster speeds and Kewaunee County “is not on the list” for upgrade. As for Charter Communication’s downtown Kewaunee service, “In terms of an enterprise solution for business, it is insufficient and it’s unreliable, and that’s the best that is available currently,” Schiller said.
Several speakers responded to an internet post by former Kewaunee County Board chairman Ron Heuer who said private enterprise already provides internet service for anyone who wants it.
“Kewaunee County, in no way, should spend a single taxpayer dollar including Dominion monies to support a broadband company tower build project,” Heuer wrote in the post dated Oct. 26.
Schiller and the other speakers said rural Kewaunee County with its population of about 20,000 is not big enough to attract private investment without a public component.
“This is as essential as fresh water. It is as essential, as was mentioned, as your electricity that powers these items, and I think it has to be looked at as a matter of last resort that the government get in on this,” Schiller said. “The government has to step in …. There just aren’t enough of us for a private solution to work. We’re going to be the last on everybody’s list.”
Frank Madzarevic, a local resident who has been researching the issue independently and is expected to be part of County Board Chairman Robert Weidner’s pending task force on broadband, said one valuable resource could be August Neverman, chief information officer for Brown County, which has been working to improve local internet access for about five years.
“He’s also a Kewaunee County resident with bad internet access, so he’s willing to help us on both a professional level and he has vested interest to see that he gets better internet access,” Madzarevic said. “He and I both agree with Ron Heuer that the less government involvement the better, but this is not one where we can do this without government involvement because we just don’t appeal to private industry; we just don’t have the volume of business.”
Broadband providers have the ability to get grants for expansion from the federal government, but only if they’re in partnership with a government agency such as a county, he added.
When the County Board’s turn came, Supervisor Charles Schmitt of Casco made the motion to remove the funds from the budget, leaving the $1 million in the Economic Development Fund, until a more specific plan is developed.
Supervisor Lee Luft, who represents parts of Kewaunee and the town of Pierce, took to the podium to argue against the motion.
“By leaving those funds available in the budget, it sends the right message to our citizens, businesses like the one I just mentioned who are considering a major multimillion-dollar investment, and the companies we might partner with,” Luft said. “Those companies want to know that we’re committed.”
But the motion passed 14-6.
“What Supervisor Schmitt’s motion does and says is that we have a clear plan, a full understanding, of what we are doing before we commit a million dollars of public money,” Supervisor Daniel Olson of Luxemburg said. “His motion is extremely reasonable, it makes sense, I fully support it.”
Supervisor Tom Romdenne of Algoma said everyone in the room would agree broadband is a big problem.
“We don’t have to put it in the budget to make a commitment to look at expansion of broadband in the county,” Romdenne said.
In addition to Schmitt, Olson and Romdenne, supervisors supporting the motion were Gerald Paape, Cory Cochart, Chuck Wagner, Robert Weidner, Doug Doell, Scott Jahnke, Aaron Augustian, Kim Kroll, Linda Teske, Joe Lukes and Kaye Shillin.
Luft was joined in opposition by Supervisors Kent Treml, Tom Cretney, Mary Ellen Dobbins, Virginia Haske and John Mastilir.
The board let stand a Finance Committee decision to pay a $40,000 investment to KCEDC out of the Economic Development Fund instead of the tax levy. A quarter of the funds will be held back pending the results of the nonprofit organization’s effort to raise $61,000 in private-sector contributions.
The committee had moved the $40,000 into the county’s contingency fund, but Supervisor Cory Cochart made the motion to move it into the Highway Department’s winter maintenance account instead. That motion passed 11-9.
The amended budget and tax levy passed 19-1, with Supervisor Linda Teske casting the dissenting vote.
Chairman Weidner has said he intends to appoint the broadband task force and begin serious discussions with the full board in January or February.
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