The county faces a hefty price tag “northward of $5 million” should leaders pursue ensuring broadband service throughout Morgan County. This multimillion-dollar endeavor would lead to a property tax increase or a new debt service obligation to the county.
“Those are the only ways to generate that kind of revenue,” said County Manager Adam Mestres at Tuesday’s Morgan County Board of Commissioners meeting.
According to Mestres, the county commissioners must decide on how important broadband service is to the future of the county while considering the steep costs of moving forward with it.
“This is really about what our citizens are willing to pay for,” said Mestres, who encouraged feedback from local citizens on the issue. “But we are at critical point now, where everything revolves around the Internet.”
“The private broadband providers are just not coming to Morgan County,” stressed Mestres. “If we want broadband service to cover our county, or even just parts of our county, we are going to have to look into doing it ourselves.”
Mestres estimated that for the county to install the infrastructure necessary for broadband service throughout the county could cost anywhere from $3 million to above $5 million dollars. He noted various federal and state grants could be possible to help offset the cost to the county, but there are no guarantees.
Mestres is hopeful that Morgan County could qualify as a “broadband ready community” to qualify for aid from the State of Georgia under a new bill that was passed in February to spur on broadband service in rural communities.
The private broadband providers are not coming to Morgan County due to the county’s small population over just over 18,000.
Mestres noted that the only way to bring broadband service to Morgan County may be for the county to invest in the infrastructure themselves.
“Some bills passed in the legislature last session will infuse money into communities in rural Georgia to be able to give them access to broadband,” said Mestres. “There are something we would have to do become a broadband ready community, but I think we will able to do that.”
The Achieving Community Everywhere Act, Georgia Senate Bill 402, was unanimously passed by the Georgia Senate in February to create a “statewide broadband deployment plan” in conjunction with the Georgia Technology Authority.
According to Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, the bill will open more state rights of way along highways and interstates for broadband infrastructure, free up public money for technology grants and will lay the groundwork for public-private partnerships in small communities around the state.
Mestres is hoping to take advantage of new grant money.
Mestres suggested a feasibility study be conducted to determine what the county could do “realistically.”
“We need to find out realistically what it would cost to bring broadband in to our community and into which parts of our community,” said Mestres. “I don’t think the taxpayers have an appetite to launch this countywide.”
“The county is either going to have to spend several million dollars to put in the infrastructure for broadband to entice competition to come in, or the county could just look at broadband as a utility. However, there is a lot that comes with county governments getting into running utilities and I am not sure we are suited for that at this point. Maybe down the road, though,” mused Mestres.
The BOC was not pleased with the options available, but vowed to keep pressing to find away to bring broadband service to Morgan County.
“Every opportunity we have we need to explore,” said Chairman Ron Milton. “We need to look into every one that comes up.”