Potential for tax increases remain unclear, despite officials maintaining otherwise
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and Broadband Authority have taken monumental steps in ensuring universal broadband coverage for the county, but some public officials and members of the community remain skeptical of the initiative.
The cost of the project, as well its scale, has left some concerned over whether or not taxes will be raised, and if the county’s chosen private partner has the bandwidth to complete the vast internet expansion project.
All Points Broadband, an internet service provider based in Leesburg, is proposing universal coverage in eight Northern Virginia counties, including Rappahannock, and is asking the state for $97.2 million through a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant to complete the project.
Localities will know by December if their VATI applications were granted by the state, which could provide a significant portion of the proposed project’s estimated price tag.
The project cost in Rappahannock County will require $19.4 million for about 270 miles of fiber infrastructure. If the state grants the VATI application, All Points will secure $6.5 million (34%) of the project cost, the VATI application will cover $6.9 million (36%) and the county will contribute $5.9 million (30%). If the VATI grant is not awarded, the entire project could essentially collapse unless the county reapplies in the future.
Rappahannock County resident Chuck Akre and his family pledged $3.5 million to the county to help fund its portion of the project, and Supervisors Christine Smith, of Piedmont District, and Ron Frazier, of Jackson District, both expressed concern over accepting a large donation from somebody who is poised to bring official business before the board.
Akre is constructing a mixed-use development in Washington, and is asking the county to consider boundary line adjustments with the town on his property.
“I think I've been pretty straightforward — we think having broadband available in the county is hugely important for the future of the county,” Akre said in an interview with the Rappahannock News. “We have no ulterior motives, if that's what you're asking.”
Akre was once a stakeholder in All Points Broadband, and he said that he expects All Points to be able to execute any contract they enter into.
At the Monday, Sept. 20 Broadband Authority meeting, the board authorized Fairfax-based attorney Sharon Pandak to work directly with the Akre family on a formalized statement declaring his pledge. Akre said that he still expects the board to look for other sources of funding, but that his contribution is guaranteed.
For weeks, the Board of Supervisors and Broadband Authority grappled with the large financial contribution the county would have to commit to the project. Since the deal is not yet finalized, officials could still back out of the proposed plan at any point.
All Points Broadband did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
What’s the plan?
Rappahannock County entered into the plan with seven other counties and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission to make their application for state funding more competitive. The plan also includes partnerships with Dominion Energy Virginia, Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.
All Points is proposing universal broadband coverage for all unserved areas in the county. Residents can expect a standard fiber installation fee of $199 with long-drop charges waived for the first 12 months. The basic monthly service fee will be fixed at $59.99 a month.
Nobody in the county will be required to switch their internet service provider to All Points under the proposal. If someone is in an area that is considered to be “served,” or able to receive high-speed internet, but their home does not receive adequate broadband, they can apply to have All Points specially install fiber to their home.
According to All Points, the project would be “substantially” completed within 24 months of being awarded the VATI grant. The county’s financial contribution can be phased over 36 months.
The Board of Supervisors entered into this agreement after a split vote, with Wakefield Supervisor Debbie Donehey, Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, and Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Chris Parrish voting in favor of the regional agreement, Frazier voting against the agreement and Smith abstaining.
What’s the hesitation?
In an interview with the Rappahannock News, Frazier said that this agreement with All Points is being rushed. He also doesn’t like that, as a stipulation of the agreement, the county cannot seek broadband coverage proposals from other companies that would be in competition with All Points.
“Both bodies are now on record that we will not talk to any other provider about any other expansion of broadband in the county that is in competition with his plan,” Frazier said. “And this puts us at a great disadvantage. And it seems like … we’ve abdicated our responsibility to this guy who none of us have really met,” he said of All Points CEO Jimmy Carr.
Frazier added that this plan goes against guidance given to the county by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which recommended that the county seek a more diversified approach to universal broadband coverage with multiple private partners.
Frazier also said that if the county receives VATI money and moves into phase 3 of the agreement with All Points, the possibility opens for the county to use taxpayer dollars to effectively put out of business other local internet providers, including Piedmont Broadband.
Piedmont Broadband did not respond to requests for comment on this report.
At a Sept. 20 meeting of the Broadband Authority, Whitson pointed out that the body explored a partnership with Piedmont Broadband, but that the company did not respond to the county’s initial request for information. All Points was also the only provider proposing complete universal broadband coverage for the entire county.
“If the goal is to get high-speed broadband to everyone — I mean universal coverage in Rappahannock County — the Piedmont Broadband representative confirmed emphatically that under a best case scenario, they could not deliver that,” Whitson said at the meeting.
Parrish argued during the same meeting that it’s not the county’s job to protect private businesses, and that nothing is stopping people from signing up with Piedmont Broadband if they still want to.
“It would just have to be collateral damage,” Parrish said of the possibility of Piedmont Broadband taking a financial hit.
Smith said in an interview that she wishes the board would have signed an agreement with Shentel, an Edinburg based internet service provider.
“I'm concerned that there may be a conflict between Shentel and All Points in competing to furnish broadband for those households, and I would just really hate to lose out on the opportunity to capitalize on those federal funds,” Smith said.
Smith said she hoped to see Rappahannock take a more diversified approach to universal coverage, naming Starlink, a satellite internet service provider founded by Elon Musk, as a potential option.
Smith added that some members of the community might be hesitant about universal broadband because it may lead to growth in areas of the county that had not previously contemplated expansion.
“We talked about the county growth pattern in our Comprehensive Plan as being very affected by neighboring counties, and I would say expansion of broadband from those counties into Rappahannock County is one of those factors that may affect our rate of growth, and it may Increase our rate of growth,” Smith said.
Will residents be taxed?
As of now, it’s not clear whether taxpayers will bear any burden from the proposed broadband expansion plan, despite officials guaranteeing no tax hikes. There exist several loose ends in the county’s efforts to secure outside funding for the project, chiefly the VATI grant.
In a letter to the editor from Donehey, written in concert with Whitson, she claimed that taxes will not go up for county residents as a result of this project. “We are working diligently to identify all possible outside grants and other non-local sources of revenue to fund as much of our $2.4 million local obligation as possible,” she wrote.
The county will receive a total of $1.4 million in federal pandemic relief, and has about $500,000 in leftover from the initial injection of federal stimulus. The county will also receive about $330,000 from the Rappahannock County Public Schools.
At the Sept. 20 Broadband Authority meeting, Frazier said that finding outside sources to completely fund the county’s portion of the project is a “lofty goal,” and that it’s looking like the county will have to use a significant portion of its stimulus money to fund the project, rather than alternatives like infrastructure.
Whitson said the county will have to “think creatively” to find other sources of funding and that it’s his goal to not use any local money to fund the project. But, those sources of funding have neither been identified nor secured.
“I'm willing to do the groundwork to make that happen,” Whitson said at the meeting. “[We can do that] through phone calls and meetings, and through telling the story of Rappahannock County, and the fact that we are potentially at a historic moment when we have an opportunity to deliver universal broadband coverage sources.”
The potential for tax dollaring to cover the county’s end of the broadband deal was top of mind for members of the public who turned out for public comment at the Sept. 7 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Bill Fletcher, a lawyer and long-time resident of the county, claimed that some people may not even want high-speed internet. He was also concerned about the substantial cost to the county.
“I practiced law for a number of years in the county and I thought it was my personal responsibility to handle that service for my clients,” Fletcher said at the time. “... I was also raised to believe that when you were given dealing with governmental money, you have to be tighter with that money than your own money.”
Carolyn Butler, a retiree in Sperryville, said she threw her cell phone and computer in the trash the day she retired, and that she is not at all interested in high-speed internet.
“But I can tell you one thing. I am not going to pay [thousands of dollars of] taxes worth of this — There's no way you're gonna make me,” she said. “... I'm not paying it. I don't want it.”