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Ferrisburgh mulls ARPA funds use

FERRISBURGH — Maple Broadband, the nonprofit devoted to bringing high-speed internet to rural areas in 20 Addison County towns, emerged as the favorite target for Ferrisburgh’s $804,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, according to results of a town survey released by the selectboard at a Nov. 2 public forum devoted to ARPA spending.

Although some selectboard members said they’re skeptical of Maple Broadband’s future, about 72% of the 169 people who responded to the survey during the past month ranked the county’s nonprofit internet service provider their top priority among the list of four options the survey offered.

The others, in order of preference, were “investments in sewer infrastructure,” “investments in emergency services,” and “investments in water infrastructure.”

Despite the public’s preference for Maple Broadband, selectboard members were hesitant on Nov. 2 to say they’d back the nonprofit, which is a quasi-municipal entity run by volunteers that has the authority to propose bonds in its member towns to fund its internet system.

Maple Broadband is now in its preconstruction phase, including identifying which existing utility poles it should use to hang high-speed fiber lines to best reach underserved areas in the county.

The internet service provider has been promised a $2.3 million grant from the Vermont Community Broadband Board, but that money is not expected until the end of the year.

Maple Broadband Board Chair Steve Huffaker said it needs money now to start ordering construction materials to allow the system buildout to begin next year. And Huffaker clarified to the Independent that grant funding “can’t be used for our most dire need: pre-purchase of long lead time materials.”

But last month, the selectboard voted against Chair Jessica James’ motion to devote $100,000 of ARPA funds to Maple Broadband.

At least one board member on Nov. 2 said he was skeptical about the future of Maple Broadband’s $25 million to $30 million buildout plans. Selectman Jim Benoit suggested the board didn’t want to risk an investment of ARPA funds going up in smoke.

“What happens if you fail?” Benoit said.

Huffaker, a Ferrisburgh resident, answered that Maple Broadband expects more state and federal funding because broadband expansion is a state priority due to its importance for Vermont’s economy, remote workers and schools, as well as for quality of life and equity reasons.

“Maple Broadband is going to stick around,” Huffaker said. “We’re going to keep doing it until it’s done.”

Still, board members want more details about Maple Broadband’s possible fee structure, which they said would allow them to evaluate whether it could compete in the marketplace with private providers.

“You’re in a tight spot when you can’t tell us what it is going to cost folks,” said board member Chris Campbell. “How can we justify giving you money?”

Huffaker said if more county towns give Maple Broadband a share of their ARPA funding, the nonprofit could eventually bond for less money, thus keeping fees lower. But with buildout at least two years away and too many cost unknowns, he said he couldn’t yet offer rate estimates.

Meanwhile, almost all of the Ferrisburgh residents who added about 70 comments to the survey indicated they want another internet option. Only one commenter questioned the need for better service.

Samples included:

  • “Connection is interrupted, slow and unreliable.”
  • “The internet is off and on, very, very slow for both uploading and downloading.”
  • “It is a nightmare trying to work from home in Ferrisburgh if you don’t live on the Route 7 corridor (where cable is easily available). Not having fiber optic available to all Ferrisburgh homes currently served by telephone lines puts us at a huge disadvantage.”
  • “We only have one option for service which is expensive, inconsistent, and has poor customer service.”
  • “I cannot do business from home, this puts our town at a real disadvantage … modern home buyers need good, fast, reliable Internet!”
  • “Our children suffer while trying to do school work.”

NEW IDEAS

Two new wrinkles cropped up at the public forum: At its regular Nov. 2 meeting that followed the ARPA forum, the selectboard voted to spend up to $10,500 of ARPA funds on a needed upgrade to audio-visual equipment. That investment is intended to make online attendees better able to hear and see meetings held on either level of the town office building.

Town resident Carl Cole also proposed spending up to roughly $90,000 of ARPA funds to use a vacant lot behind town hall for a sewer system to serve the town-owned Union Meeting Hall across Route 7 and the former town clerk’s office just south on the state highway. That second building now houses the Ferrisburgh Historical Society.

That town lot had been set aside as the back-up site for a communal mound septic system that now serves town hall, Ferrisburgh Central School, and the Atkins Farm housing subdivision.

But Cole noted the state no longer requires back-up sites for mound systems. Thus, he said, the lot offers a chance to increase occupancy at the Union Meeting Hall, which a volunteer group has ambitious plans to renovate.

But that historic building’s lot has limited septic capacity, and Cole said his plan could raise its occupancy allowance from 50 to 200 people.

The hall could become a more valuable community gathering center with that larger occupancy limit, Cole said.

“I think that would be an appropriate use of ARPA funding because it would benefit the town as a whole,” he said.

Other than the audio-visual decision, the selectboard didn’t dedicate any of the ARPA funds on Nov. 2, but added Cole’s suggestion to a list that already includes, as well as Maple Broadband:

  • The Vergennes-Panton Water District, which according to its per-unit estimate serves more than 1,000 Ferrisburgh residents on private lines, mostly, but not all, in West Ferrisburgh.

District officials have asked for up to half of Ferrisburgh’s ARPA funds, while selectboard members have asked for concrete plans and more information before making any commitment.

  • Emergency services equipment. Board members said Fire Chief Bill Wager is assessing his department’s needs, and the handful of residents at the meeting backed spending in that direction. “I would very much support funds going to our own fire department,” said Ashley LaFlam.
  • Sewer infrastructure. Resident Christine Gingras suggested a study of community sewer or the possibility of an extension of the Vergennes sewer system to support development in the village area around the school and town offices.

Some pointed out, however, the historic reluctance of city officials to extend sewer, something reinforced just last month when the city council declined to back an extension to a property near Dollar General off Monkton Road.

WATER DISTRICT

The Vergennes-Panton Water District has been plagued with water line breaks in recent years, and many of its lines are aging cast-iron pipes. Ideally, the district would like to replace all of those pipes.

District water user and Ferrisburgh resident Rick Ebel suggested the district board should have Ferrisburgh representation that it now lacks, especially given estimates suggest about a fifth of its customers live in Ferrisburgh, albeit on privately owned lines.

Or, Ebel said, the board should at least create a way for Ferrisburgh to have “a seat at the table” when the district discusses its operations and rate-setting.

Board members supported the idea that town residents served by the district should have a say in its operations.

District Superintendent Jon Deming said a charter change would be required to make any change in the board structure, and it’s “not something we can do” quickly or easily.

He added monthly water district board meetings are publicly warned “if anyone from the public wants to attend” and comment.

James said as the chair she’d take it on herself to do some research and make recommendations to the board on how to spend its ARPA funds.

She said she’d keep in mind the survey results showing the preference for broadband as well as the general concept of doing the most good for the most residents with the one-time pot of money.

“I think what I have to do next is really dig in, and see based on these responses, and the responses that the community would like to investigate more plans for wastewater and septic, I’ve got to see what we could do, how we could do it, and what’s going to impact the most of the town,” James said.

“And then (I’ll) go back to the board and say, ‘This is what we can do for this amount of people, and this is what we can do for this amount of people for this amount of money.’”

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