Representatives Laura Sibilia and John Gannon attended a recent meeting of the Whitingham Selectboard to discuss several issues of considerable interest to the area and ultimately unleashed a Pandora’s box of ill will between tiny Whitingham as David and the state of Vermont as Goliath.
Broadband connectivity in southern Vermont remains a work in progress. Contrary to previous reports about Vermont Telephone Company’s internet expansion and the company’s attempts to improve and widen internet coverage, particularly in underserved rural areas, Sibilia said that the state has been unsuccessful in its attempts to align statewide communication objectives with the company.
“The state will no longer support any ideas for funding of that company,” Sibilia said. Hopes for working with CoverageCo, a subsidiary of Vanu Inc. that describes itself as “a company dedicated to solving the challenge of rural cell phone coverage,” did not fare any better, although they were given time to fulfill their contract.
Whitingham resident Phil Edelstein, an enthusiastic supporter of VTel, relayed his positive experience with VTel. In addition to servicing 17,000 homes and businesses in central Vermont, “VTel has 200 customers in Whitingham, Wilmington, Halifax, and Marlboro who are satisfied with the product,” said Edelstein, “and VTel is considering installing an additional tower on private property that could provide service to Whitingham Village and Readsboro. They are the largest supplier in southern Vermont of fast and cheap internet service outside of Springfield.”
In an attempt to promote the company’s cell service, “VTel is giving away Samsung Galaxy J3 cell phones to 2,000 customers statewide that will work in residences, anywhere on the VTel network, and roaming throughout the US for a year,” Edelstein continued. Despite the upbeat, community-oriented, self-promotion of the companies, the details of the conflict with the state, which granted funds to both, remain unclear and small rural communities remain frustrated about access to the internet.
In other legislative business, proposed bill S.27 would “require all municipalities in Vermont to provide primary police coverage within its jurisdiction.” Selectboard members were clearly unhappy with the proposed mandate, not only in terms of locating trained candidates but in funding such an endeavor. Selectboard chair Keith Bronson suggested that the state police, which is already taxpayer funded, should be expanded, rather than burdening small communities like Whitingham with a mandate they can’t afford.
Selectboard member Allan Twitchell agreed. “The state police can’t keep their own roster full,” he said. “How can we be expected to find qualified people and pay for them?” According to administrative assistant Gig Zboray, Bronson has been an active advocate for the town, recently attending a Senate government operations committee public hearing to learn more about S.27 and express the town’s concerns.
Act 148 is another bone of contention, requiring the collection of compostables at the transfer station at a cost of $90 a week to haul it away. An additional requirement of the law would be an increase in hazardous waste collections. The selectboard contends the town cannot afford the added expense.
On November 2, the selectboard crafted a letter regarding the “future of the rural economy” sent to Rep. Charlie Kimbell. “We are struggling down here,” selectboard members declared in the letter’s opening sentence. The letter goes into detail about the issues presented above and includes concerns about roadway conditions described as “treacherous in spots” and a shrinking tax base and work force.
The board closed the letter with a plea. “We know there are no easy answers but please look at the education funding formula, support broadband and cellular infrastructure that works for our rural area, and stop the state mandates that make no sense down here. Please stop unfunded mandates altogether!”