Residents Urge Advisory Board to Keep Burlington Telecom Local | Off Message

Residents Urge Advisory Board to Keep Burlington Telecom Local


Steve Goodkind speaks before the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board. - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • Steve Goodkind speaks before the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board.
While the city plans to sell Burlington Telecom this summer, residents on Tuesday night said loud and clear that they hope to retain local control of the utility.

About 25 people gathered in the Fletcher Free Library, offering the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board words of advice on who the buyer should be and how the city should go about the selling the entity. The half a dozen people who spoke before the board depicted the local fiber-optic network as a valuable public good.

“A publicly owned company is a precious commodity and asset,” said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, Burlington’s public government-access cable station. Losing community control would be “short-sighted,” she added, arguing that the city should maintain a “decision-making stake” in the utility.

The sales process may be the final episode in an drawn-out drama involving BT. In 2009, the administration of then-mayor Bob Kiss improperly spent $16.9 million in taxpayer money to save the floundering utility.

Citibank sued Burlington for $33 million, and in early 2015, Mayor Miro Weinberger resolved the legal dispute with a $10.5 million settlement agreement. Local financiers, under the company Blue Water Holdings, loaned the city $6 million to cover those costs.

As part of its deal with Blue Water, the city must sell BT by January 2, 2018 in order to reap the highest possible proportion of the sale price — 25 percent. After that deadline, the city will receive a decreasing margin of the total price.

Last year, the advisory board set forth a series of criteria for a prospective buyer, including affordable services, a local office, net neutrality and “a strong partnership with the city of Burlington.”

After a second public forum in February and approval from the Burlington City Council, the BTAB plans to create a list of interested buyers and officially launch the sales process in March. The board has proposed a June 1 application deadline. Finalists would then present publicly before the city council before it selects a buyer by the end of July.

At least one buyer has already expressed interest. Alan Matson, vice chair of Keep BT Local, said the local co-op will put forward an offer for the utility. The member-funded effort likely won’t put forward as substantial an offer as a private tech company would, Matson acknowledged. Still, he said, “We hope to be one of the finalists in July.”

Matt Cropp,* a member of Keep BT Local, said the co-op model would “build broad-based community wealth” and urged Burlingtonians to pitch in. He said he was willing to commit a portion of his retirement savings to the cause.

Steve Goodkind, who has criticized the arrangement from the start, urged the board to abandon the Blue Water deal. “That’s the devil in this thing. It needs to be gotten rid of,” he said.

The board made clear that not selling the utility isn’t in the cards. But they may consider reopening the process if they don’t find the right buyer, said Jane Knodell, a BTAB member who also serves as city council president.

“We heard from a lot of people tonight who wish that we weren’t in the situation we are in,” said Knodell. “We have a very strong set of criteria for the buyer. I think that we need to be very committed to these criteria. We need to make the right long-term decision for the city of Burlington.”

BTAB chair David Provost tried to assuage citizen concerns, noting that the board has crafted buyer criteria that emphasize local control.

“Everyone wants to paint a fear that if we move forward with a process, that we’ll sell BT to a huge conglomerate for the highest amount of money,” he said. “I don’t think the criteria reflects that.”

Provost added that the city would also seek to recover the $16.9 million dollars in lost taxpayer money. “None of us are happy that we’re in this position but when we started this seven years ago, that’s what we were dealt with,” he said. “The focus for me is to find the right partner, the right buyer.”

*Correction, February 1, 2017: A previous version of this story misidentified Matt Cropp.