Cleveland Announces $ 20 Million US Broadband Rescue Fund



(TNS) – In an unusual move, Cleveland City Council on Monday approved legislation to set aside $ 20 million of the city’s $ 511 million US bailout for an ambiguous plan to expand l broadband access in the city.

The proposal had only been heard by a committee on Monday afternoon – hours before it was submitted to council for approval. Councilors Kerry McCormack and Brian Kazy voted against.

The bill was proposed by Council Chairman Kevin Kelley – a mayoral candidate, who advanced to the primary elections last week and will face nonprofit executive Justin Bibb in the November general.

Kelley presented the ordinance for a first reading at the August 18 city council meeting – one of dozens of pieces of legislation read in rapid succession that night. But the proposal bypassed proper verification when it was referred directly to the Council’s finance committee, usually the last stop for legislation before it was passed. And unlike other expensive projects, for which the city council usually allows the administration to solicit bids or proposals, the broadband legislation weighs in the tens of millions of dollars with no idea who would own or operate the project. , how long it would take to complete, or how far the money would go.

In a statement written on Monday, Bibb criticized Kelley’s proposal as a manipulation of taxpayer dollars for “behind-the-scenes political demagoguery.”

“Tonight Kevin Kelley is about to take $ 20 million of your money and put it into broadband expansion,” Bibb said. “There is no plan. There was no public input, not even a public council hearing. There is no auction. No sensible partnership with expert organizations. He wants to look good, but it’s bad government … It’ll lead to the same shoddy public internet service Kelley brags about in Ward 13. He wants to brag again, and he’ll say anything to get elected.

Kelley’s proposal follows weeks of council members expressing frustration and begging for more discussion and planning on how the city’s US bailout money will be spent. And despite the lack of an expenditure framework, Kelley admitted he had “taken the plunge” by introducing two very popular expenses while campaigning for mayor: $ 20 million for broadband expansion and $ 5 million for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

Acting CFO Sharon Dumas – speaking on behalf of Jackson, who has supported Kelley – told the finance committee Monday afternoon that the allocation of money to the food bank and the vague broadband project was needed “immediately”. However, once the legislation was passed, Dumas acknowledged that the matter would fall mainly on the next mayor and that “nothing will happen on this piece beyond contemplation” during the final months of Jackson’s tenure.

Broadband expansion is widely seen as a late need to bridge the digital divide in Cleveland, which census data shows is the least well-connected large city in the country. It’s also a problem across the country that has become more acute as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed school and work online. For this reason, expanding broadband access is one of the main suggested uses of US city bailout money.

Council members are generally in favor of increasing broadband. But some have expressed concerns about the legislation, which allows the CFO to employ consultants, computer software developers or vendors to develop or provide a city-wide broadband network, and to acquire licenses or other services necessary to maintain the network.

At Monday’s hearing, McCormack asked if the ordinance allowed spending or simply allocated money as a “legislative statement” that the city was setting aside $ 20 million to begin work on the expansion. broadband.

Dumas said the expenses covered by the ordinance would be “contemplative” of the indeterminate broadband project as a whole – and the cost of connecting the entire city digitally would exceed $ 20 million.

When McCormack asked how the city came up with the $ 20 million for this ordinance, Dumas initially responded by saying, “There was no science for the $ 20 million.”

Kelley interjected.

“This is the estimate that was given to take advantage of the available matching funds to reach a target of 40,000 households that could be quickly connected through some of the existing models that do not involve entering one’s home,” Kelley said, raising more questions than he answered. “But that’s one way to get to 40,000, which would essentially cut the city’s underserved households by about half.”

Kelley said the Meyer Foundation and the Mandel Foundation would provide an additional $ 20 million if the legislation was passed, although there are no signed documents for these agreements. The state of Ohio is also considering spending $ 20 million on broadband services in urban neighborhoods, Kelley said.

McCormack asked if the broadband plan to be decided would involve decisions, such as who will build the network, who will maintain it, and what technology already exists. When Dumas confirmed that all of these aspects are still “unanswered questions,” said McCormack, “Okay. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on, say, two years of research and collaboration.

McCormack compared it to the work devoted to reducing lead. He pointed out that the Lead Safe Coalition had requested $ 17 million from US city bailout funds, a dollar figure illuminated by two years of “intentional and collaborative work” involving hundreds of interested parties, which took speaking at numerous committee and council meetings.

In an interview with and The Plain Dealer, McCormack explained why he intended to vote against the ordinance on Monday night.

“I don’t know the intention behind this, but it seems rushed, like there is a huge lack of information and data,” McCormack said. “The digital divide is also a top priority for me, but what I can’t do is vote for something that’s essentially a blank check for $ 20 million of taxpayer money that we don’t. do not have a good idea of ​​what it is used for or how it will be spent. I have and will continue to encourage [digital] connectivity, but I think (this order) is a little irresponsible.

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