Notes from May 10, 2016 meeting between Governor Baker and invitees from Western Mass

ATTENDEES:

Baker Administration and state officials: Governor Baker, Lt. Governor Polito, Secretary Jay Ash, Carolyn Kirk, (Deputy Secretary of Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development), Sean Cronin (Senior Deputy Commissioner of Division of Local Services [part of DOR]), Peter Larkin (MBI), Bill Ennen (MBI), Ed Donnelly (MBI), Linda Dunlavy (MBI).

Western Mass legislative delegation: Senator Stan Rosenberg, Senator Ben Downing, Rep. Steve Kulik, Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, and Rep. Paul Mark. Other delegation staffers were also in attendance.

Western Mass invitees: Toby Gould (Charlemont Select Board), Kimberly Longey (Plainfield), Charley Rose (Worthington Select Board), Michael DeChiara (Shutesbury Select Board),  Doug Tanner (Wendell Finance Committee), Steve Harris (Middlefield), Thomas Powers (Leverettnet), Joe Boudreau (Worthington Finance Committee).

SUMMARY:

The meeting was officially one hour, 10:00-11:00 am, at the State House in Boston. Governor Baker and Senator Rosenberg left at 11:00 am, but most of the attendees stayed for another hour of discussion.

Gov. Baker promised to get this project back on track; and has increased MBI’s team to include Peter Larkin and Bill Ennen to ideally better manage the project and expedite implementation of the newest last mile plan. Larkin will report directly to Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Jay Ash. Ash was in attendance but did not speak. Ennen will shift from his current position at the Innovation Institute at Mass Technology Collaborative and will now report to Peter Larkin. Larkin presented a Powerpoint of Baker’s plan.

In the meeting, WiredWest representatives emphasized:

  1. town choice/self determination: we need to be treated with respect and as partners in designing the solutions for our region;
  2. fiber to the home is the best and only proven technological choice and best use of public resources: and the preferred choice for most towns;  
  3. regionalization offers strong advantages in economies and sustainability and enables a greater number of towns to afford a FTTH solution;
  4. the time to act is now: no more studies, no backsliding on issues that were discussed, examined and put to rest during the past 8 years.

TAKEAWAYS:

There were some potential yellow cards (not quite red flags), but substantial caution is warranted.

  • MBI finances are under review; when pressed directly by Ben Downing, there was no clarity about the status of funding or specific town allocations. It is fair to assume funding allocations will change.
  • There is strong emphasis on private sector involvement (behemoth national corporations to sole proprietors are listed as potential partners). This is a catch 22: Private sector involvement means debt service payments will need to come from taxes and higher cost of service, putting towns at greater financial risk and for some towns putting their financing of fiber out of reach. But for towns without any broadband, there is also financial risk from of loss of tax base due to population decline and decreasing property values.
  • There is a range of project models offered, the closest to WiredWest is called “Multi-Municipal Network” . This is more of a consortium approach, incorporating outsourced operations and flexible withdrawal by towns with their physical broadband network assets. The Governor indicated he does not believe a grouping of 20 or 30 towns is practical and would be able to agree on critical decisions over time.  Despite WiredWest’s experience to the contrary, he is convinced that long-term cooperation among all the towns within the region would be difficult. He believes that smaller groupings of towns make sense, even though our region has had some different experiences, but acknowledged that towns should be in the driver’s seat of determining if they want to take a regional approach.  
  • The plan clarifies that any flow of state broadband incentive funds will require the approval of by the Dept. of Revenue. Sean Cronin, the Senior Deputy Commissioner of Division of Local Services (part of DOR), will have authority for the state’s determination of a town’s “readiness to proceed”.  Bill Ennen, Peter Larkin and MBI staff assessments, and conversations between Bill Ennen and local community leaders,  will inform the assessment, which will focus on financial capacity and project plan sustainability over time.   An unfavorable determination would most likely result in denial of state funds to a town. The criteria for “readiness to proceed” has not yet been shared, though the plan makes clear that MBI does not support projects that may require future subsidy. With so much power vested in one entity, we will need to consider how to participate in crafting whatever financial litmus test is created.  

We are encouraged that the two new staffers appear to have clear direction towards forward movement, and we are all ready to work with them. There is a lot of information, however,  that needs to flow in order for this newest iteration of the last mile plan to be trusted or embraced. Actions speak louder than words. Outcomes are more important than intentions to our frustrated towns.

The Governor stated that he expected quarterly progress reports from Larkin and that he has received the message that this needs to move as quickly and expeditiously as possible. It was stated that meetings would be held in western Mass. Ennen will work out of western Mass and Larkin will be back and forth.

There was no overt support voiced for WiredWest or a region-wide approach from any government official, including our legislative delegation. The Governor did say he wasn’t necessarily opposed to towns wanting to work through WiredWest, as long as the projects meet the state’s criteria.

As the meeting was winding down, Senator Downing facilitated the identification of key takeaways, which emerged as:

  • Contact person is Bill Ennen at ennen@masstech.org
  • Peter Larkin agreed to meet with WiredWest and said he would do that in Western Mass
  • MBI committed to open communication
  • Each town needs to authorize one person to speak for their town with the state on last mile program
  • MBI wants corrections of the data included in the “MBI Last Mile Profiles” issued April 28, 2016
  • MBI wants a recommendations for information that should be added to the MBI website

MOVING FORWARD:

We believe we all need to stay focused, vigilant and receptive to working with the state. We look forward to discussing our specific strategy and tactics around moving forward at the next WiredWest Board meeting in New Salem on May 21st.