Complicated internet coverage decision awaits Fayette voters at upcoming Town Meeting

FAYETTE — Residents will be able to vote on the future of the town’s internet coverage, a funding cap for Starling Hall, elect local officials and vote on the municipal budget during the upcoming local election and town meeting scheduled for mid-June.

The state and local election is set for June 14 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Fayette Central School. The town recently held a public meeting about a set of questions related to the future of the broadband internet in Fayette. Residents will be able to vote yes or no vote to move forward with an agreement with Redzone Wireless for high-speed internet and yes or no to accept an agreement with Axiom for fiber internet.

Fayette currently has limited internet service, with many residents having little or no access, and officials have discussed a solution to this issue for several months.

The Redzone agreement would require the town to raise $385,275, with Redzone’s share of the $1,285,380 project being $900,105. The town’s contribution may also be eligible for partial or total grant funding.

According to the draft question on the town website, Axiom has estimated that $3,469,715 of the total $4,030,305 project would be eligible for grant funding or set-offs, with the town’s share being $560,590. The broadband committee recommended appropriating an amount of money not to exceed $1,000,000 in order to cover any unexpected contingencies.

Axiom’s fiber optic network would also be owned by the town and operated by a third party.

The question of which internet service to use has divided town officials. The select board recommended going with Redzone, while the town’s broadband committee recommended going with Axiom.

Selectman Nathaniel Sparl said the board recommended Redzone because it is less expensive and also because it will be completed in one to three months whereas Axiom could take upwards of a year to completely install.

“The difference for most of the board was not really even an option, especially being as fiscally conservative as possible. The technology seems to be at the pinnacle for both systems, with Redzone also guaranteeing their speeds. For us it was a timeframe issue, and a dramatic decrease in costs,” he said. ” … the bottom line costs are difficult to even come close to comparing.”

Joe Young is both a member of the town’s broadband committee and the Western Kennebec Lakes Community Broadband Association, which is a collective consisting of six central Maine towns working to expand internet access in underserved areas. Young said the committee recommended Axiom because they felt it was a better investment for the town.

“We feel that it is likely to be what they call future-proof,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed forever, but we feel like it’s a better long-term solution, and it’s one that the town has an investment in that is likely to pay us back in the long-term, versus just paying Redzone to do something and hoping that it works.”

Young said he believed Vienna, Readfield, and Wayne, which are part of the community broadband association, are considering Axiom.

“The (broadband) group is basically waiting to see the results of town meetings to see what, if any, path forward there is for the group to work together,” he said. “At this point the towns have to make up their minds with what they want to do.”

An earlier draft of the broadband questions included a third option to choose neither internet service. Town Manager Mark Robinson said that during a late April meeting there was some concern about the structure of the questions could lead to a fractured vote, with some residents asking for the ballot to be changed.

“Theoretically, you could have 299 people vote for option one, 299 people vote for option 2, and 300 people will vote for option three, and option three will prevail and nothing will be done,” he said. “That’s a possibility.”

After discussing the ballot with town attorneys, Robinson said they will go with offering a yes or no choice for both services, without the third option to reject both options.

“Voters will have the opportunity to vote yes or no on both,” he said. “So, both could be approved.”

If this occurs, he said town officials will have to determine their next steps.

The town is planning an additional public hearing on Tuesday, May 17, in which residents will be able to attend in-person and ask about these questions or other municipal matters. It is set to take place at 7 p.m. at the Fayette Central School and via Zoom. Robinson said Axiom will make a public presentation about their service during this meeting and the town budget will also be presented.

The school committee is set to finalize the school budget and warrant articles on May 24, and the selectmen will sign and approve the town meeting warrant on May 25.

The ballot will also include a citizen initiative question asking if voters would approve limiting the funding for maintaining Starling Hall to $5,000 per year.

According to the 2022-23 proposed budget on the town website, Fayette is looking at a total budget of $3,288,652. This figure includes county and school budgets, and is $228,823 higher than the previous budget.

The majority of these increases, according to the proposed budget, are on the municipal side. The school budget remained flat at $2,084,856 and the county budget only increased by $2,627. Proposed increases in the municipal budget include an additional $359,515 for public works and a proposed $59,419 increase in general government.

Other lines, such as public safety, capital reserves, and debt service, all have proposed decreases.

“The budget will not be flat,” Robinson said. “There will be increases, most notably there will be increases in general government and public works on the municipal side,” adding that these increases are due to increases in motor and heating fuel as well as increased personnel and health insurance costs.

For the election, four candidates are vying for a three-year term on two open select board seats. Incumbents Lacy Badeau and Nathaniel Sparling are running along with new candidates Michael Carlson and Wesley Bowen. One open seat is available on the school committee, which was vacated by Theresa Harrington. Robinson said no nomination papers were submitted for the seat, so residents will have to vote for a candidate via write-in.

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