Selectmen receive petition to reconsider municipally owned fiber-optic network

No date set for special town meeting
Thu, 04/14/2022 - 6:30pm

    Two citizen-initiated petitions may doom Southport’s attempt at providing high-speed fiber optic broadband access to 100% of the island. A citizen’s group presented two petitions April 13 which would dramatically alter the project approved last May in a special town meeting referendum vote.

    Residents Tom Myette, Celeste Brown and Doug Jones submitted the petitions with both exceeding the required 42 registered voter signatures. Petition No. 1 would “re-set” what happened last May by rescinding the authority allowing selectmen to seek funding for building a municipally owned fiber optic network. So far, the town has spent $640,000 on materials for constructing the network. A “yes” vote would also direct selectmen to sell already purchased materials. 

    The petitioners also wanted to create a fund for helping about 25 homeowners described by state officials as being “underserved” in broadband access. Petition No. 2 would take funds from the general fund to assist the unserved residents. Petition No. 1 garnered 144 signatures and No. 2 received 82.   

    “There are strong feelings on both sides, and we want to let you know this is simply a disagreement,” Myette said after he handed selectmen the petitions. “The sign on the fire station says this is tax neutral, and it’s anything but. We believe the three of you have led the town well, but this is an aberration.” Myette also challenged the assertion that 320 subscribers could sustain the project without additional taxpayer dollars. The project currently has 130 subscribers, and Myette doubted they could achieve 320. “People aren’t signing up in big enough numbers to justify this. I’ve heard from the committee the break even number is more like 500 (subscribers). So we have serious concerns about this ever becoming tax neutral.”

    Regardless of a revote’s outcome, selectmen believed the special town meeting would hurt the project’s effort to attract more subscribers and may lose grants. In March, the town submitted a ConnectME grant application requesting $400,000. Project officials believe the town could receive a response by the last week of April. “This  is going to negatively effect our ability for grants. Everything hinges on this project, and we probably won’t get any funding,” Selectman Mary Lou Kostela said.  

    The petitioners also requested a vote to coincide with the state’s June 14 referendum, but selectmen said there wasn’t enough time. Town officials reported the soonest a special town meeting could take place was 90 days. Selectman Smith Climo estimated  July would be the earliest date, but August would be a more likely time. 

    In other action, selectmen received the 2022 Lincoln County tax commitment of $1,035,580. Selectman Gerry Gamage reported the increase is over $108,000. The board also received a letter concerning a wharves and wiers application. Deborah and Johanna Eaton submitted an application for their Pine Cliff Road location. Hans Koehl of Danielson, Connecticut is an abutter. He is not opposed to the Eatons’ replacing their pier, gangway and float. Koehl did submit the following concerns: The limited distance between his floats and the Eatons’ may interfere with the ingress and egress, the pier is being moved an unknown distance south further bringing their float closer to his, and chains anchoring their float may foul lobstering gear. 

    Selectmen approved Southport United Methodist Women’s request to hold a July 22 craft fair in the town hall. The board approved a date change for Southport Central School’s talent show. The school previously requested May 26, but now it will occur on June 2. Selectmen also approved Hendricks Hill Museum’s request to rent the town hall. The museum will hold a June 7 meeting with a featured speaker.

    Selectmen meet next at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 20 in the town hall.