Earlier this month, a plan to bring fiber connectivity to four towns in Knox County, Maine (pop. 39,500) spearheaded by the MidCoast Internet Development Corporation (MIDC) was dealt a major blow when Knox County Commissioners denied MIDC’s request to use the county's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for network construction.
During a Knox County Commission meeting on Tuesday, October 12, after County Commissioners repeatedly barred local municipal leaders from commenting on broadband-related issues, they voted unanimously against awarding any of the county’s $7.7 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds to municipal broadband projects or any project benefiting an individual municipality.
County Commissioners assembled to consider 58 ARPA project applications submitted by nonprofit and municipal entities, all vying for a portion of the county’s Rescue Plan funds. But, the meeting took an unexpected turn when one Knox County Commissioner accused representatives from the MIDC, a regional broadband utility formed by four Knox County towns, of “bullying” the Commissioners into spending the county’s Rescue Plan funds on regional and municipal broadband projects.
After County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether voiced her displeasure for how local community broadband advocates pursued the funding, three local Select Board members were not permitted to speak in support of MIDC. Adding insult to injury, the Commissioners then welcomed a representative from Charter Spectrum to talk for nearly 30 minutes.
Knox County Commissioners are now getting pushback from local municipal leaders and their constituents who are accusing the Commissioners of not adhering to the budget approval process mandated by the county charter and failing to represent constituents in the county’s ARPA funding priorities. They also say the County Commissioners are in violation of Maine state law for forgoing a public comment period.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Knox County Commissioners had informally awarded $4.1 million of the county’s ARPA funds to project proposals addressing affordable housing and food distribution. Yet, some municipal leaders refuse to go quietly into the night, skeptical that the project applications Commissioners voted to finance are even eligible for ARPA funding under U.S. Treasury guidelines.
Residents of the Knox County towns shunned by County Commissioners are now holding the county seats to the fire to make sure that every dime of incoming federal relief funding is spent on authorized ARPA projects. Most recently, attorneys representing the towns of Camden and Thomaston wrote a letter to the County Commissioners, making the case that the Commissioners do not have the sole authority to spend the incoming $7.7 million and that they must consult with the Knox County Budget Committee before appropriating the funds.
The Maine Issue at Hand—Failing to Represent Constituents
Municipal leaders and their constituents have made it clear that improving local Internet access through community-driven solutions is a top priority. More than nine communities located in Knox and Waldo County formed the MidCoast Internet Coalition in early 2020 in support of establishing a regional broadband utility district. Residents of the towns of Rockport, Camden, Rockland, and Thomaston were at the forefront, having voted overwhelmingly in support of entering an interlocal agreement that launched the formation of MIDC in June of 2020. The MIDC Board of Directors is made up largely of local municipal leaders and the regional utility has also garnered the support of local legislators.
Still, when Knox County Commissioners received eight broadband project applications from various towns in the county — all of whom are MIDC members or planning to work with the regional broadband utility — the Commissioners were reluctant to support those towns efforts to expand broadband access.
Eager to tap into seed funding to begin construction of a countywide open access, fiber-to-the-home network, MIDC initially sent a letter to Knox County Commissioners asking for all $7.7 million of county Rescue Plan funds be reserved for the broadband project. The Coalition subsequently lowered their request to $4 million when MIDC first met with County Commissioners to present the project proposal on June 8. Even then, County Commissioners appeared hesitant to fund the broadband project, leading to MIDC cutting the funding request down to $750,000, or 10 percent of the county’s ARPA funds.
With $750,000 in county ARPA money, alongwith $177,500 the city of Rockport committed (all of the city’s ARPA funds), MIDC would have enough to place an order for the $945,000 dollars of fiber optic materials necessary to begin the first phase of the build. But, MIDC’s prospects of working with the county on the project have withered, as County Commissioners continued to downplay the significance of MIDC’s funding needs in the intervening months leading up to the October 12 Commission Meeting, in which MIDC was officially denied access to the county’s ARPA funds.
At the meeting, Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether put forward an odd interpretation of the U.S. Treasury’s Final Rules governing the funds. She took the position that because broadband was named last on the list of what the funds could be used for, behind water and sewer infrastructure, that meant it was considered the least important to Congress.
Commissioner Meriwether has also repeatedly cited inflated BroadbandNow statistics to defend her stance not to engage with MIDC — saying 94 percent of Knox County residents already have access to Internet service with speeds of 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps). But, according to data the Maine Broadband Coalition has gathered, the numbers in Knox County are actually much worse, with 54 percent of Knox County addresses lacking access to Internet speeds of 25/3 Mbps, and 65 percent of locations failing to meet the state’s current upload standard of 10 Mbps.
In an interview with ILSR, MIDC’s Chair Debra Hall expressed her extreme disappointment that the Commissioners failed to deliver on something so important to Knox County residents and municipal leaders. “They’re elected by the residents of those towns and they’re supposed to represent the best interest of those residents, and by their own charter they’re supposed to be coordinating with municipalities,” Hall said. “The municipalities clearly told [the county] what they want these funds to be spent on and the constituents certainly expressed wanting broadband by forming the regional utility by overwhelming numbers.”
Accusations of Bullying
What led to the County Commissioners decision to not support MIDC’s efforts is a bit of a mystery, though a hint can be found in Commissioner Meriwether’s accusations that MIDC officials were “bullying” the Commissioners, which led to a heated discussion throughout much of the October 12 meeting.
“I think we have been threatened by this organization enough,” Meriwether said early in the meeting, later advising MIDC representatives that “if you want money from people, be polite” and telling them to “go back and think about what is really important.” Meriwether maintained her stance as a victim throughout, saying “I personally just don’t intend to support an organization who seems to not even be able to approach an entity for money without bullying,” reports the Pen Bay Pilot.
MIDC representatives in the audience appeared stunned by Meriwether’s allegations. “I don’t know what is happening,” Camden Select Board member Matthew Siegel told the Courier-Gazette. “We’ve tried respectfully to reach out and engage them in discussion.”
In the two minutes County Commissioners actually allowed Camden Select Board member and vice chair of MIDC, Matthew Siegel to speak during the October 12 meeting, Siegel attempted to smooth things over, saying:
“That kind of anger and hostility is not necessary. There is so much we have in common in terms of our goals and aspirations for our communities . . . Please keep in mind, there are some things that are important to you, that we also feel are incredibly important . . . homelessness, healthcare. The reason I got involved in broadband is because universal, affordable broadband access would serve so many of these needs. So, I hold out the olive branch because the anger that you feel, the misinformation, and the statements I’ve heard in this meeting are not accurate in terms of what this Coalition [MIDC] is about. I don’t know what’s going on at that side of the table, but I know it’s not what we’re doing or what we’re fighting for . . . We’re working with organizations you approve of. Let’s try to figure out a way to work together, whether it's this round of funding or future funding.”
Next Steps for MidCoast Internet
As for what’s next for MIDC, the regional utility will now look to private investors and philanthropists. MIDC may also try to access a portion of the $128 million in state Rescue Plan funding the Maine State Legislature set aside for a broadband expansion grant program, which puts “Community-Driven Broadband Projects” at the forefront.
Despite this latest setback and an array of other challenges, the MIDC is determined to find a way forward even without the financial support of County Commissioners. We will continue to track their efforts as MIDC moves forward.