Following a second spirited hearing, the Grant County Court approved an ordinance ratifying the creation of the Grant County Digital Network Coalition Dec. 13. The vote was 2-1, with Commissioner Jim Hamsher opposed.
With Prairie City and Canyon City not participating in the coalition, Grant County could be on the hook for 70 percent of future costs, Hamsher said. He said he wanted to see the final version before he could vote in favor.
County Judge Scott Myers reminded him that “this is the final version” — a memorandum of understanding will be presented later with more details about the responsibilities of Grant County, John Day and Seneca in constructing and operating a broadband network in the county. The ordinance will go into effect 90 days after approval by the court.
Sixteen people addressed the court on the matter on Nov. 22, with 13 in support of the ordinance and one opposed. This time, 21 people spoke, with 13 opposed and six in support.
Dan Driscoll, speaking on behalf of Grant County Farm Bureau President Jeff Thomas, said the bureau supports improved internet — but not if it means the government will compete with private enterprise. Oregon Telephone Corporation and CenturyLink can provide broadband to many city residents, the bureau said, while rural residents could be served by satellite.
Noting that the broadband plan had divided people across the county, Shaun Robertson criticized the county for not performing its due diligence and conducting all the necessary planning ahead of time. While he commended John Day City Manager Nick Green for securing $1.8 million for the project, Robertson said he wanted the court to delay a vote on the “half-cooked” idea.
“We only have one shot at this,” he said, adding that if the network can’t help rural residents in Long Creek and Monument, “it will be a mistake.”
Elaine Smith agreed that the network needed to serve Long Creek and Monument. She called the broadband project “pie in the sky” and claimed everyone someday will be served by satellite.
Pete Hettinga presented the court with a spreadsheet estimating costs to construct and operate a broadband network in the county based on information he obtained from Ortelco and the internet. He claimed the cost to run a cable from Burns to John Day would be $5 million.
Hettinga said the proposed project was “not worth doing” and “not necessary.” He suggested spending the $1.8 million John Day will receive from the state to extend existing fiber in Canyon City south to Seneca — and not any further. He also wanted any county expenditure for the project to be presented to the voters.
Harriet Crum claimed the city of John Day was trying to get rural residents to pay for a project that would benefit only city residents.
Ken Brooks said he was a large taxpayer in Fox, and although he supported improved internet access, he was concerned county taxpayers could be stuck with the bill. He wanted to see the broadband benefits extended beyond the John Day area to Long Creek and Monument.
Support and response
Both Shannon Adair and King Williams said Grant County needed to have a seat at the table and to be involved in how the broadband network was developed. Haley Walker took note of all the “speculation” and pointed out that the county could pull out of the agreement at any time.
Green responded to the comments by noting that Long Creek and Monument were never offered a chance to join the coalition. Running broadband to the northwest part of the county was “a tough nut to crack,” he said.
He also said the Grant County Internet Task Force — a working group that preceded the new coalition — has talked with Ortelco and CenturyLink four or five times. The city of John Day has been designated the lead agency to receive the state funds, but how the money will be spent will be determined by members of the coalition, he said.
Myers agreed with Green, noting that the task force has talked to the companies “from the start.” He also said that the ordinance says nothing about taxes or the county investing any money in the proposed network.
“We have not been reckless,” he said, adding, “It’s time to get things moving.”
Commissioner Boyd Britton agreed it was time to move forward.
“Grant County will not be obligated to anything,” he said, adding, “Nothing will be done in the back room.”
Britton said the county has been looking at ways to get cellphone service to Long Creek and Monument for a long time without success. He complimented Green on finding the money for the broadband network and warned of the consequences of not joining the coalition.
“If you’re not at the table, then you’re the main course,” Britton said.