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A penny for broadband

The time for study is over. The time for action is here. We call on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors to increase the property tax rate by a penny and fund a robust broadband initiative.

On Thursday, Jack Maytum, a consultant for Design Nine, outlined for supervisors a comprehensive broadband study of the county that includes a six phase approach to implement major improvements.

The study tells us lots of things we already know. One, that broadband service is decent in the county’s cities and villages, but spotty across rural townships. Second, fixing the situation is fairly straightforward. You need to upgrade various towers and bury 211 miles of fiber optic cable in a number of strategic loops across the county. Third, the system deficiencies won’t solve themselves. Government is needed.

The Design Nine study considers a broad range of funding mechanisms, including grants, connection fees, special assessments and bonding. None of these options should be discarded but we are attracted to paying for county broadband poles and fiber with a small property tax increase. This alternative is simple and straightforward.

According to the county’s 2020 budget, the county’s tax base is $10.75 billion. The Design Nine study reports that the county could come up with more than $27 million over 30 years by dedicating a single penny on the county tax tax rate to pay for broadband. Such an approach would require the county to find another $8 million or so to pay for the total proposed initiative, but, with a combination of fees and grants, it could be done.

We know the Marathon County board. It will be slow to vote a tax increase, even just a single penny on the mil rate. We can already hear the arguments from some supervisors. You are killing jobs, they will say, and that the private sector should make these investments, not county government.

Well, any tax increase is going to impact some businesses negatively, but we’d argue the economic benefits of a robust broadband infrastructure outweigh the costs in job loss.

The economy is changing quickly. Rural areas, especially north of Marathon County, are emptying out. People are flocking to the cities. The way to retain people is to connect them to the internet. The number of people working at home with an internet connection is a fast growing sector of the economy.

If Marathon County can grow its economy, the whole county benefits. That’s why we think a standard property tax increase for what will become the “railroads” for the 21st century is justifi ed. There should be no digital divide in Marathon County. We are in this all together.

A penny for broadband needs to be compared to the $25 vehicle registration fee (“wheel tax”) that county uses to maintain the county trunk highway system. The program has been a success. Prior to the fee, the PASER rating for county highways continued to deteriorate. Now the county’s PASER rating has improved markedly. Our sense is that the public is well satisfied with the fee. People value well maintained roads and they are willing to pay for them.

The county broadband system has been documented to be lacking in numerous “service gap” studies conducted over the decades. Again, our sense is that regular Marathon County residents want better telephone, cable and internet service. They are tired of the status quo. We think they wouldn’t kick at a penny on the mil rate for a service they will use every day.

The county board needs to invest in the future. It should vote to approve a penny for broadband.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review