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Ferrisburgh considers water, broadband for ARPA money

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard last week decided to wait before making a contribution from its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to county nonprofit internet provider Maple Broadband. But this week Board Chair Jessica James said she will recommend the board consider a six-figure bequest at its next meeting.

Initially, board members said on Sept. 7 they needed more information from both Maple Broadband and the Vergennes-Panton Water District before giving any ARPA money to either entity.

This past spring Congress appropriated $350 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act to aid state and local governments in recovering from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

On Aug. 4 Vergennes-Panton Water District supervisor Jon Deming asked the Ferrisburgh selectboard for up to half of the roughly $800,000 of ARPA funding it will receive, money Deming said the district would use to upgrade its infrastructure in the town.

Board Vice Chair Clark Hinsdale, who subbed for James on Sept. 7 when she could not attend the meeting, said the board knows Maple Broadband needs money to fund its county-wide engineering and design phase.

But Hinsdale said that before making any commitments the board wanted details from both the internet provider and water district about plans of how the money would be used, how many residents would be helped, and where they lived.

“We’re aware of the stage Maple Broadband is in, in terms of their cash burn,” Hinsdale said. “But it would be fair to characterize our board as fiscally conservative. And there is a great deal of concern about maps and routes.”

Specifically, Hinsdale said the selectboard wants to know from Maple Broadband much the same sort of information it would like from the Vergennes-Panton Water District: information about how many town residents are underserved or unserved by broadband internet, maps showing where they are, and details about the plans about how to reach them.

“And we want to know from the water district, we want to see the maps of who they serve and the areas they consider as being potential areas to expand,” he added. “And we want to know where our residents have either low-quality or low-quantity issues of water, or both, where they would say it would enhance their lives if the water line was run out there.”

James, speaking earlier this week, said the board is still waiting on details from the Vergennes-Panton Water District.

But, she said, Maple Broadband Board Chair Steve Huffaker, who made the nonprofit’s case to the selectboard on Sept. 7, has given the board what it needs to make a decision on Sept. 21.

“He’s already sent more information,” James said. “He’s already sent a four-page response to everything.”

James, a non-voting alternate to the Maple Broadband board, said she is aware of the cash crunch the Communications Union District faces.

“I’m going to try to get something on (the agenda) so they have money to use right now,” she said.

Huffaker told the Independent in late August that Maple Broadband, which has 20 member towns in Addison County, needs about $2 million to fund its preconstruction phase. Some of that money — but not all — can come eventually from the state.

But Maple Broadband needs funds right away to begin identifying the many poles it will need to string fiber-optic cable, create a final detailed design, prep the chosen poles to have the lines attached, and create construction bid documents for a project with a target completion date of 2024 and a price tag of around $30 million.

Much of the final funding can be paid for in turn with a bond funded by user fees. But now donations like the $50,000 it has already received from Cornwall are critical, especially while officials are ironing out details on how broadband funding approved in the past legislative session can be released.

Hinsdale had said the board was leaning toward waiting for more public feedback to make a decision before committing any ARPA money. But James said Maple Broadband has mailed postcards to Ferrisburgh households and its efforts and that of other Communications Union Districts have had a high profile in media reports.

In short, James said she believes residents are up to speed on Maple Broadband and the larger effort to bring better internet service to rural Vermont.

“There’s been a lot of information out there for this endeavor,” she said. “I feel pretty good about it.”

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