Wendell votes no on potential for municipal light plant — for now

  • The town offices in Wendell. Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Thursday, March 01, 2018

WENDELL — As a town broadband system gets closer to reality, Wendell has a decision to make regarding who should oversee the local internet service.

For now, the town will keep control in the hands of the Selectboard, although some have suggested creating a special municipal light plant board.

Since that decision doesn’t have to be made yet, “it makes sense to wait,” said Selectboard Chairwoman Christine Heard.

Wendell is part of the WiredWest cooperative with surrounding towns, creating a municipally owned, fiber-optic, high-speed broadband network. Under the arrangement, the town must establish a legal entity called a municipal light plant, which would be empowered to oversee the construction of a local broadband network. The Wendell Selectboard has served as that municipal light plant’s governing body.

The Wendell Broadband Committee has researched various internet technologies, made suggestions to the Selectboard and consulted with Westfield Gas and Electric, a regional internet provider that is working with several Pioneer Valley towns to help with their broadband service.

The Broadband Committee has also worked with the other towns of the WiredWest cooperative, including Leverett and Shutesbury, and with WiredWest, with whom the board is negotiating a contract for management of the network once built. Ultimately, the Broadband Committee reports back to the municipal light plant — meaning the Selectboard.

This past week, voters at a special town meeting rejected two proposals that would have led to creation of a separate, three-person municipal light plant board, shifting the responsibilities from the Selectboard.

Expected completion

The broadband project is in its final stage and, according to Heard, is expected to be completed by next summer. However, without a finished broadband network, there is no reason to establish a new governing body to control it, Heard said.

Also, Heard said, she had some concerns about using a municipal light plant, after hearing about the way it can be structured.

According to Heard, one budgetary structure a municipal light plant can have allows it to spend money not voted on and not included in the town’s regular budget. Heard hopes, given town-owned broadband is a relatively new concept, the Massachusetts Legislature will offer more guidance and regulations for municipal light plants by the time the Wendell project is complete.

Doug Tanner of the Wendell Finance Committee said his board also had concerns, and publicly did not recommend changes.

“The Selectboard is willing and able to continue acting as the MLP,” Tanner said.

Another of his problems with creating a municipal light plant board was there being “no job description for an MLP board.”

“We’re creating a board with no instruction of what they can do,” Tanner said.

When the project is complete, however, Heard said it is necessary for an MLP board, separate from the Selectboard, to be formed.

According to the Broadband Committee, the town has already received $320,000 of the $730,000 to be provided by the state for the project. Once complete, the network will be paid for by grants and subscriber fees, which are yet to be determined and dependent on construction costs.

David McLellan can be reached at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.