Local fall referendums are still a few months away, but at least four additional Colorado communities have decided to put local broadband authority on the ballot. In addition to Aurora, Cañon City, and Florence, Fremont County will ask voters to opt out of SB 152.
In 2005, Colorado's state legislature passed the bill, removing local communities' authority to take steps to use publicly owned infrastructure to offer telecommunications services either directly or with a private sector partner. The law, however, allows communities to hold a referendum so voters can choose to "opt out" as a way to reclaim that authority. Over the past several years, cities, towns, and counties by the dozen have overwhelmingly passed measures to opt out. Some have a specific plan in place to develop networks, while others want to preserve the option. Each fall and spring, more communities put the issue on the ballot.
We spoke with City Clerk Dena Lozano in the small town of Florence who confirmed that voters there will be deciding the issue in November. With less than 3,900 people in Florence, almost 40 percent of residents work in either education or public administration. The town began as a transportation center at the base of the Rocky Mountains; three railroads that transported coal converged there. Later, the town became known as the first oil center west of the Mississippi.
Today, the town has a downtown antique market and has worked on nurturing its culinary dictrict. They've also established an Urban Renewal Authority to help keep their town center on a positive track. Within their 2017 Master Plan, Florence leaders tackle their wish to allow the art and business communities to grow while still maintaining the small town charm that keeps many residents in Florence.
In August, the rural community’s city council voted to present the option to reclaim local authority to voters this fall. The town is located in about 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs and draws tourists interested in rock climbing and whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River. Tourism is important to Cañon City’s more than 16,000 residents, but city leaders see the value in diversifying.
Cañon City Economic Development Director Ryan Stevens explained the way SB 152 constrains local communities from offering high-quality connectivity or working with partners who want to do so. Rob Brown, executive director of the Fremont County Economic Development Corporation told city council members:
"From city council's perspective, the biggest and best reason (to approve this) is it is opening up and clearing a way for other partnerships to begin," Brown said. "We are clearly disadvantaged as a community in rural Colorado when it comes to competing for job opportunities and projects because of the leverage that the larger population areas have — the City of Denver and the six counties surrounding Denver, they win all of those because we just don't have the same tools to compete."
With county seat Cañon City as the most populated community, Fremont County is primarily rural and located in the center of the state. Within the county there are more than 1,500 square miles, which includes two National Forests, a National Wilderness, and several other protected areas. Approximately 47,000 people live in Fremont County. In addition to the tourism that helps prop up Cañon City’s economy, Fremont County is known as home to several state prisons.
In early July, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to present the opt-out measure to the voters this fall.
For many communities in Colorado that have taken up and chosen to opt out of SB 152, one of the primary reasons voters choose to reclaim authority has little or nothing to do with their interest in municipal broadband. Many people in Colorado feel that most decisions should be made on the local level. Rather than let Denver dictate how they get access to broadband, they vote to bring the decision back to the towns where people know what they need.
Aurora Leaders Are All In
Considered part of the Denver metro, Aurora’s population rests at around 362,000 people. Over the past few decades, it has grown quickly and is now Denver’s largest suburb. It covers almost 154 square miles and it the third most populous city in the state.
Buckley Air Force Base employs more people than any other single entity in the community at more than 12,000 people. Other large employers include Anchutz Medical Campus, the University of Colorado Hospital, and the Aurora Public Schools. Healthcare, including insurance, and defense contractors.
At their July 23rd city council meeting, members decided to allow voters choose whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority by opting out of SB 152. The council considered a memo drafted by a Denver law firm that suggested taking advantage of the opt out provision before any changes in state law might make it more difficult for local communities to improve local connectivity. Attorneys also noted that the number of communities who have chosen to opt out has increased every year, allowing them the flexibility that Aurora doesn’t share until they do the same.
Aurora's council voted unanimously to give voters the chance to reclaim local authority on the November ballot.