Michigan rural communities where big ISPs won’t offer high-quality connectivity are tired of waiting for relief that won’t come. One at a time, they’re taking action by presenting proposals to members of the community, discussing the possibilities, and seeking the authority to move forward. The specifics of how they fund that goal are unique to each community; in Sharon Township, the town held an election on May 8th to let voters decide. After a somewhat contentious campaign, the proposal to use a special property tax assessment to fund fiber optic broadband infrastructure did not pass.
A few months ago, we described how voters would decide in a spring election whether or not to authorize a $4.9 general obligation bond proposal for fiber optic infrastructure. The community would use the “millage” system to calculate how much local property owners would contribute toward paying back the bond. As Gary Munce from nearby Lyndon Township and Ben Fineman from the Michigan Broadband Cooperative explained in episode 272 of our podcast, a millage is calculated based on the taxable value of real property. In Sharon Township, the proposal would have added an average of about $3.2583 per $1,000 of taxable value to local property owners' tax bills. In order to help people determine how much they would owe under such a payment structure, the city hosted a “High-Speed Internet Millage Calculator” on their website.
Sharon Township planned to take the same approach as Lyndon Township, where a similar proposal passed last summer with 66 percent of voters approving the millage and 34 percent voting no. In Sharon Township, the numbers were similar but the result was reversed with only 319 voters approving the millage and 587 voting no.
Misinformation About Munis
In a May 2nd article of the local Sun Times News, Sharon Township Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis published an appeal to voters to make their decision on May 8th based on facts, rather than falsehoods. According to his piece, misinformation was being circulated in the community. For example, Psarouthakis had seen signs posted that claimed the project would cost $10 million or $6 million, when the actual projected cost is $4.9 million.
There was also a privately maintained website that claimed that a wireless provider had made an “actionable proposal” for a wireless solution, which was inaccurate. According to Psarouthakis’s article, the president of the WISP had publicly stated that fiber would be the best solution to bring high-quality connectivity to every premise in the community. The WISP also expressed an interest in bidding on a fiber optic solution. Apparently, documents from a meeting with the WISP were made public on a website dedicated to defeating the measure. The documents were presented in a manner that gave readers the impression that the WISP had made a formal proposal, which was misleading. The website hosted several documents we've seen used in other campaigns, along with several pieces that locals opposed to the project created addressing specifc issues.
Another issue that Psarouthakis addressed was the misconception that property owners with large tracts of land, such as farmers, would pay a disproportionate amount toward repaying the bond due to the millage method. He wrote:
This is also FALSE. Looking at all taxable property in the township it is clear that land size does not always equate to the highest taxes paid. This is due to things such as agricultural land exemptions. There are MANY homes that are rather expensive on smaller parcels of land with a much higher assessed and taxable value than many farms. Again, just because someone owns a lot of land does not mean that their land has a higher taxable value than a home in the township. YOUR TAXABLE VALUE is different than your assessed value- THIS IS VERY important when calculating your potential costs.
So Much Going on Here
Unfortunately, the issue of overburdening local farmers appears to have been nursed to throw suspicion on local elected officials and citizens who supported the project. The website also depended on several sources known to disseminate false information, such as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. MuniNetworks.org readers will remember their shoddy “Boondoggle Map,” a travesty of research that we felt compelled to address in our Correcting Community Fiber Fallacy series.
Those that opposed the Sharon Township plan appeared to do so based on a belief that “the future of rural Internet access is wireless.” While it’s true that fixed wireless technologies have greatly improved in recent years, fiber optics are necessary to provide backhaul for fixed wireless networks to function, including 5G.
Like so many others who have been influenced by the 5G hype, those who took the time to prepare and maintain the website try to argue that 5G will come to the rescue in Sharon Township. Much of the chatter around the rural 5G hero these days is marketing hype distributed by the big ISPs that still have years of work to deliver on the promises they say are “coming soon.”
Learn more about the 5G hype so you’re prepared with the facts by listening to Christopher’s podcasts with consultants Eric Lampland from Lookoutpoint Communications and Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting.
Sharon Township voters have the right to decide whether or not to support a publicly owned Internet infrastructure project. Local communities are the only ones who understand what the community needs and the unique character of the people who live there. It’s unfortunate, however, that making an informed decision is incredibly difficult because organizations such as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance continue to publish the same drivel that influences decision making. Rather than making a choice based on facts, voters are swayed by the big ISPs that do all they can to preserve their own status and prevent competition.