opinion: ‘I want to be very, very clear. I am not against high-speed broadband’

A Letter from Knox County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether

Tue, 10/19/2021 - 6:15pm

In the kerfuffle of last week’s Knox County Commissioners meeting, I fear my reasons for voting against Rockport’s Midcoast Internet Development request of $750,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act disbursement to Knox County have become lost. Please allow me to try to explain the choices the Commission was tasked with and the reasons I voted as I did.

During the Commission’s discussions with County departments and municipalities, as well as local agencies, and interested and engaged individuals, the severe and immediate needs that were identified far exceed the $7.7 million available.

We have heard from representatives of our most vulnerable community members; the homeless and housing insecure, those struggling to obtain affordable child care in order to work, people forced to choose between groceries and medication, those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, and yes, those households that either could not get or could not afford internet service when schools and businesses were conducted remotely.

These voices, including that of our own Sheriff Tim Carroll, have shared heartbreaking stories of desperation. No one could have failed to have been moved by Sheriff Carroll's account of the unfolding hidden crisis in our County as winter moves in, when most residents are tucked into warm homes, while others suffering from mental illness and hiding homeless in the woods.

Every one of these individuals is part of our Community, and I want to believe that we in Knox County are the kind of people who care and are willing to sacrifice a little to help. Unfortunately pre-existing inequities have been significantly worsened during the pandemic, and we are now in a position, thanks to the ARPA funds, to make life-altering, positive changes for the neediest among us.

To take just one example, the funds allocated to the County provide an opportunity right now to assist the Knox County Health Clinic, a volunteer-based non-profit advocating for and providing free or low-cost medical, dental, and prescription support, as well as mental health and wellness services to the uninsured and underinsured.

Statewide, all of our jails have growing populations, and our Knox County Jail is in serious need of expensive repairs - repairs that have been postponed for too long.  We have a social obligation - and now an opportunity - to help those incarcerated who can be released safely become productive members of society. Doing so requires resources and support to ensure that they don’t succumb to the lifestyle that led them into jail in the first place. With ARPA funds, we can help them obtain jobs, places to live, transportation and emotional support.

Thanks to our wonderful corrections officers and their excellent managers, our Jail has managed to avoid a dreaded Covid-19 outbreak, but keeping everyone safe hasn’t happened without placing a huge strain on the employees. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office is proposing to hire additional staff to perform the jobs that society and state representatives are demanding, extra trained staff to keep the jail population down, to assist in properly discharging inmates and to have a deputy available when patrol officers require trained and experienced help with  people suffering from substance abuse disorders or mental health issues. Staff in the  Communications Department must keep their equipment working at the highest standard to ensure that when you call 911, you can be confident of reaching one of the exceptional dispatchers within moments. The employees and equipment needed to offer you that assurance is expensive, but it is critical and non-discretionary.

The Commissioners have spent many hours discussing agency, municipal and County department requests for ARPA funds, but even after having to cut out very worthy requests, we are still faced with a list totaling $12 million. So we still have more difficult choices to make.

I want to be very, very clear. I am not against high-speed broadband. Far from it. It is as critical as any infrastructure in our County and Country. But it is my job as a Commissioner to help prioritize our decisions about the most immediate use for the limited funds we have. In choosing what projects to carry forward, we have relied on the clear guidance provided to us from the U.S. Treasury, and we are submitting our list to a specialized attorney with expertise in interpretation of the Federal guidelines.

U.S. Treasury guidelines state, “Eligible investments in broadband are those designed to provide services meeting adequate speeds and are provided to unserved and underserved households.  Underserved or unserved households are defined as those that do not have any access to internet or have service at speeds of less than 25 Mbps (Megabits per second).

From my research, 98.9 percent of Knox County residents have access to at least 25 Mbps, and 94 percent have access to speeds of at least 100Mbps. The immediate priority is to find and assist the unserved and underserved 1.1 percent, and where possible, use what resources are available to assist those households.

I applaud the Midcoast Internet Coalition for what they are doing. They are working tirelessly to improve internet service for everyone in Knox County, and we encourage them to continue, but I, as one Commissioner, believe that our Community has more pressing and even life-threatening needs that must be addressed with the American Rescue Plan dollars that we have been entrusted to distribute.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to clarify my position on these decisions, and I’m confident that we can come together as a caring community to work in the best interest of everyone in Knox County.

Dorothy Meriwether is a Knox County Commissioner and lives in Rockland