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Town will ask voters about broadband in November

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Carbondale is on track to ask voters in November whether the town should actively work toward providing unlimited broadband Internet service to its residents, in keeping with a Garfield County-wide broadband examination that has been underway for months.

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The town’s Board of Trustees (BOT) on Tuesday approved a ballot question that asks voters whether they want to “opt out” of SB 152, a 2005 statute passed by the state legislature that prohibits local governments from getting involved in the broadband business.

The matter came up Tuesday night even before the ballot language was discussed, as the trustees met with Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) members John Martin, Mike Samson and Tom Jankovsky for one of the two boards’ periodic joint meetings.

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“We, as commissioners, see the importance of broadband, how much that could help the entire county economically,” declared Samson at the opening of the joint meeting.

At this point, according to County Manager Kevin Batchelder, at least two other towns in the county — Parachute and Silt — will be putting a similar question on their ballots in November. Two other towns, Rifle and New Castle, are believed to be headed in the same direction, according to Town Attorney Mark Hamilton, who said he had contacted both towns to find out their current positions on broadband.

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The City of Glenwood Springs, Batchelder noted, has been “in the broadband business since 2005” and so was “grandfathered” in as unaffected by SB152.

Garfield County has hired a consulting firm, NEO Connect out of Glenwood Springs, to look into public opinions about broadband availability, which is considered an essential tool for businesses, governments and people hoping to take advantage of a range of offerings on the Internet.

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A representative of NEO, according to a memo to the town trustees from Town Manager Jay Harrington, spoke up at a recent BOCC work session that included Carbondale officials to “strongly recommend that local governments consider opting out” of SB 152, an option that was included in the bill’s language.

By opting out, according to NEO and others, local government can get involved in providing broadband “connectivity” to local businesses, homes and institutions, either as the entity that pays for the infrastructure needed for broadband, or by partnering with private interests or nonprofit organizations to get the job done.

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But, emphasized Martin at the BOT meeting, “It’s going to take a couple of years to get it done, and tens of millions of dollars” to be spent either by local governments or private partners.

According to Batchelder, the county has issued a “request for information” from potential private companies that might get involved in the broadband issue.

But, given the lack of any definitive indication from the private sector, “We don’t know where on the spectrum we’re going to be ending up.”

He added that the ongoing assessment by NEO has indicated that “expectations are sky-high” from the public, which he said is hoping for some kind of Google-level service that will provide “gigabyte service at fifty-nine bucks a month,” which he said already is available in some large cities.

When the NEO assessment is concluded, probably by November, the county will share the results with the towns with the expectation of figuring out what steps might be taken next.

Tuesday night, the county and town officials also discussed the issue of affordable housing, which has vexed local governments in the area for decades as the cost of housing has risen to a point where housing options are too expensive for many working families to cope with.

“One of the points that keep coming up is, we need to look at it regionally,” said Trustee Ben Bohmfalk, who then asked about the county’s level of interest in regional cooperation on the problem.

“Does government really build affordable housing?” asked Martin. “Is that what we’re looking at?”

Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson replied that he was unsure about how to answer that, but he stated flatly that the town clearly does not have the kind of money needed to act on its own at this point.

Talk then turned to questions about help from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA), a state agency that works with federal funds and with which the county has worked in the past, and of private-sector involvement in building affordable housing.

County and town officials alike conceded that, in general, affordable housing is more an issue for the towns than for the county, as population centers typically are the places where housing is built.

Bohmfalk, responding to a question from Martin about the town’s willingness to accommodate high-density development, noted that Carbondale has recently changed its development review codes, making high-density development and commercial projects easier to accomplish.

“We are ready to have some development,” Bohmfalk concluded.

Published in The Sopris Sun on July 28, 2016.

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