When the Vanguard was formed in 2006, one of the problems we cited in city governance was that the fiscal ramifications of decisions made by council were not properly assessed. The result was that, while the city appeared to be healthy as late as 2008, accounting practices failed to take into account the down-the-line impacts of fiscal decisions.
While I believe that economic development is not only vitally important, and that the lack of reliable broadband in Davis is a hindrance toward those goals, I think it is equally important to take into account the fiscal impact of such a move.
As Dan Carson put it in his op-ed, “Nobody disputes the benefits of improved high-speed broadband for economic development, education, technological innovation, and addressing the digital divide. The question is, how do we get these benefits without saddling our taxpayers with huge financial risks? We already face an $8 million a year funding gap for basic city services over the next 20 years.”
However, he definitely goes further than I agree with when he argues, “I worry about a bullet train-style boondoggle in which construction starts, only to find out that the rest of the money needed to finish a network isn’t coming.”
But I think his fiscal caution focused the council on issues that were potential pitfalls to a plan and program they might otherwise enthusiastically endorse.
The council on Tuesday was cautious – and they should be.
It is unfortunate that people in the community chose to negatively react to Mr. Carson’s comments.
As a member of the public put it, “I was astonished to see Dan Carson’s editorial in the Davis Enterprise. It would seem like he’s already decided… in advance of today’s staff presentation and without hearing comment from the community or his own fellow councilmembers. That he’s decided that Davis should not control its own broadband network.”
His colleagues came to his defense.
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs responded, “I think it’s unfortunate that he was ridiculed for putting his perspective out there,” noting that a critical perspective was not only needed but helpful even as he stated, “I don’t one hundred percent agree with it.”
Will Arnold stated, “I appreciated my colleague Dan Carson’s op-ed… He is a cautious (person), very knowledgeable about finances… There wasn’t really any point that he wrote that I disagreed with. There are a lot of risks out there. Whether they’re insurmountable, we’ll find out.”
He said, “Any suggestion that he should have… kept his mouth shut… I don’t want that – I don’t want that to be the takeaway for any of my colleagues.”
In terms of approach here, I would come down with both Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs. I would argue more than simply liking the idea of having a municipal network – I think we need it. I also think that Lucas Frerichs made a really good point that California is lagging behind other states in such networks and we need to find ways to overcome that.
As the BATF (Broadband Advisory Task Force) letter points out, the project “would also pave the way for massive economic development.”
Importantly, “The network would create the ability for businesses around the world to employ work from home professionals in the City of Davis.”
Matt Williams made an essential point last week when he noted, “Prospective companies thinking about locating in Davis will see a proactive, in-place telecommunications deployment, ready for their immediate use, rather than an ad-hoc, reactive telecommunications deployment that requires expensive and time-consuming case-by-case buildout.”
This is not the only barrier to economic development but it hard to envision a robust economic development program without the access to the infrastructure that drives the engine.
I also continue to see the social equity piece here. Some on the council played down the digital divide on Tuesday.
Brett Lee for instance stated, “I think we need to be very careful when we talk about this digital divide, that there are people who choose not to spend their money on access.”
Gloria Partida noted, “The one thing that’s thrown out a lot is the digital divide as an argument for doing this – we’re doing this for the betterment of people, the people who don’t have access. I’m a little uncomfortable with that because if we really wanted to do something about the digital divide, we would set up hotspots where people could access the internet for free.”
She noted that there are a lot of families for whom, if you gave them broadband, would not have the computer hardware to be able to access it.
While both make a good point, neither are seeing the big and important picture here. Part of the digital divide is allowing young people to have access to the technology that will enable them to proceed – young people who otherwise either might not have access to high speed internet or be limited to accessing such technology on campus.
As we think about high tech economic development, remember the people that are going to drive that new wave are young and lack a lot of resources to tap into high speed internet. Those are the people who are vital to the future of our economy and for whom we can do more into the future.
However, despite my difference of opinion here, I do think the council approach is the right one – study the issue, work creatively to figure out the fiscal pitfalls.
I see little value in asking members of council to hold their thoughts when they see a potential downside to a project or endeavor we may otherwise enthusiastically support.
We should be cautious in expending community resources. We should weigh the risks and costs. And, in the end, the council and members of the public should be able to state their minds without fear of retribution.
We should encourage critical analysis of all projects – whether they are projects we support or projects we oppose.
—David M. Greenwald reporting