The Grand County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has been engaged in discussing several proposed ballot initiatives, put forth for the November 2017 general election.

On Tuesday, they voted unanimously to initiate a ballot measure put forth by Commissioner Rich Cimino that would exempt Grand County from Colorado Senate Bill 152, a state law preventing counties and municipalities from investing public funds in internet infrastructure and services. Since the bill passed in 2005, local governments are even restricted in the ways in which they can work with private parties to support and provide such services as telecommunication services, cable television services and broadband internet service.

Practical examples of what that means for Grand County is that local governments can do nothing to help improve connectivity for businesses or residents. Nor can they add these services to public venues that are not already grandfathered under the law. So while visitors to the Grand County Court House and Administrative Building in Hot Sulphur Springs may log onto the provided internet services, groups wishing to book an event at the county fairgrounds could not be offered broadband WiFi as an incentive.

According to County Economic Development Coordinator DiAnn Butler, this is an increasing concern as we look to boosting our economy as a venue provider. “We need to look at, what do our facilities supply? What do other venues supply?” she says. “Other counties aren’t charging for broadband access, which makes us non-competitive if we’re trying to bring events into Grand County.”

Some private business owners are opposed to the measure. Eden Recor, owner of Grand County Internet Services, who has offered locally-provided, high-speed internet services since 2001, believes that the law does not eliminate the possibility of public-private partnership. In the fairground example, he says that his company just needs to know how many people will need to be served in the case of a special event, and they can be prepared to meet those needs.

He recognizes that the services need to be paid for and that the County could not pay him directly. However, he says the answer to funding is to work with event planners and local businesses to cover costs through sponsorship and advertising. His ultimate concern? “Opting out of SB 152 gives local government an unfair advantage and would stifle local business. It allows them to use tax dollars that I pay to compete against me and existing providers. In other states, it has meant a stop to private investing in such infrastructure, for fear that government will be in competition.”

In spite of this potential threat to private business, citizens in 98 communities across Colorado have already voted to opt-out of SB 152 and “reclaim local authority” of telecommunications services. In Grand County, the Towns of Winter Park successfully passed an opt-out measure in 2015 and the Town of Kremmling is considering a similar ballot question for this November.

All three Commissioners, including Cimino, Merrit Linke, and Kris Manguso stressed that the intent of the initiative was to “remove restrictions from the County, not to become an internet provider.”  They requested ballot and resolution language that would make clear the measure is meant to ease restrictions, “permitting, but not obligating” Grand County to offer telecommunication services and to work “either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners.”

The BOCC then declined to add ballot measures for the creation of a Local Improvement Districts (LID) for this election cycle, a disappointing decision for Winter Park Ranch residents who have put in lots of time to pull together petition signatures, cost analyses, and engineering considerations for, in some cases, a second time.

County Manager Lee Staab described an LID as “a relatively easy way to finance and construct improvements in a subdivision and at the same time, insure everyone receiving benefit pays their fair share of the costs to construct the improvements.” In this case, it concerned the creation of a special paving district, of different considered lengths, on Mulligan Street, for home-owners facing increasing usage, dust, mud and deterioration of unpaved neighborhood roads.

The County is not currently considering paving the road, citing the high cost-benefit ratio for a small number of residents, responsibility for 80-paved miles of County road and ongoing struggles in maintaining that existing network. But the LID would permit a partnership wherein the County would help to secure a bond or other funding option and perform the road work, but the cost would billed to residents of the district via their property tax bill.

This is the second time long-time resident Tom Newton has pursued this option and he says that he will not be the one to lead a third attempt. The first attempt failed, he says, due to the then-defined boundaries of the district, which included a large percentage of part-time residents who were not interested in paying for something they rarely use. This time, careful and strategic choices were made about the boundaries of any proposed district, and Newton says he has signatures from 70 percent of homeowners in support of the first and smallest proposed district.

Staab and County Attorney Alan Hassler expressed concern that an unrealized procedural time-crunch would not permit the process to meet all legal obligations. Under a timeline imposed by the election process, a public hearing would need to be announced by today, July 29, and all supporting documentation would need to be available for public review. Staab gave anecdotal evidence of a similarly rushed effort in a previous job that later exposed the county government to lawsuit and liability. Rather, he proposed a specific strategy to meet all deadlines and have the issue on the 2018 ballot.

The BOCC heard resident concerns and expressed dedicated commitment to supporting the neighborhood improvement in the coming year. Cimino put forth a “promise that it won’t be pushed past 2018.”

But Newton says that he plans to be spending less time in Grand County in the coming years and, at 82, doesn’t want to go through the preparatory work again. “Gathering signatures alone,” he says, “when many people are only present part of the year is the hardest part.”

However, he is supportive of neighbors such as Steve Vandas or others taking up the torch and looking for creative ways to meet the ongoing challenges. “East Grand is not rural Grand County any more. It is a metropolitan area. And Winter Park Ranch is the only residential area that isn’t paved.”

He encouraged Vandas, Cimino, and Assistant County Manager Ed Moyer to explore other funding options as well, suggesting that self-financing through the County might remove the heavy expense of a bond for what is a relatively inexpensive project.