December 15, 2009
Lori Hunsaker

Brigham City Hall was packed last Thursday night for a special city council meeting. The council chambers were full and the crowd spilled out into the upper level, down the stairs and into the main lobby area of city hall.

After hearing comments from citizens for and against UTOPIA, each side having 10 minutes, council members made their own comments and voted three to one to give final approval for the $3.66 million bond, which will pay for full build-out of fiber optic infrastructure throughout all of Brigham City. The pre-payment from citizens totaled $1.09 million. Brigham City will need to come up with $294,000 for installation to city facilities and $188,000 to make up the difference for the rest of the installation cost for full build-out, to be repaid as other citizens sign up.

One point of contention for those in opposition to the move was the fact some citizens didn’t realize they were putting a lien on their homes when they signed up to get fiber optics from the curb to their home. The cost is $3,000 but paid over 20 years at 5.51 percent, the cost will be $5,400 maximum per residence. The maximum monthly payment will be $22.50 a month.

During public comment Cheryl Anderson voiced her opposition and said her contract was jumbled and she couldn’t understand a thing it said.

Dale Smith said he wasn’t opposed to the technology, but the process. “Things have been muddled, as clear as mud. The phrase ‘likely to be approximately’ isn’t clear,” he said in refering to the contract. To have the council then borrow money from itself in order to be the first to get on board with the fiber optics is in poor taste, he concluded.

Karen Nisonger told the council UTOPIA is not a utility and it is not a necessity. If someone isn’t interested they shouldn’t have to pay. The city already has a lot of bonds, ATK just announced more layoffs. Free enterprise is wonderful but Brigham City shouldn’t be involved in something like this – don’t mix public and private.

Brian Rex said, “This is a lame duck council and mayor. It is inappropriate for them to vote on this.” No more money should be put in a black hole. “Five people should never have the authority to make this kind of decision. George Orwell should have named his book “2009,” he concluded.

Becky Maddox asked who would pay the cost to maintain and repair the system. If everyone owns something, no one takes care of it. If someone wants fiber, which is being outmoded, they should get a group together and form a corporation, not go through ‘big momma’ government, she concluded.

Mickey Waters said everyone is missing the point – fiber optics is outdated. Putting in more cable is like a dead horse.

In support of UTOPIA Jim Madsen said, “I’ve followed UTOPIA for a long time and fully support it. At this point, we bought the milk and poured it. Now it’s been spilled. That’s not our fault. Lets clean it up and go on. RUS (Rural Utility Service) stalled the whole program and created a huge setback but we’re on schedule to go ahead. We’ve rounded third base, let’s not stop the ball game.”

“People who want the service will pay for it. If they don’t want it they won’t have to pay,” Jeff Packer explained. He has worked on the state level to enhance rural economic development and has learned how important fiber optics is for rural businesses. He has talked with Qwest for 8-9 years begging for any DSL or fiber optic services. “We were told no.” Still, to this day, we’re at the back end of getting anything.

“I was offended with the information the Utah Taxpayers Association sent out,” Packer continued. Addressing Howard Stephenson of Utah Taxpayers Association specifically, Packer said, “You are as great a liar as anyone who has written or participated in the UTOPIA process. Your organization represents Comcast and Qwest.

“If the average person can’t afford this, the average person doesn’t have to. To say UTOPIA is not free enterprise is like saying the freeway isn’t free enterprise,” Packer concluded.

Local internet service provider Ken Sutton expressed his support for UTOPIA. “From a technical point of view, anyone who says fiber is on its way out has no clue. Nothing comes close to what fiber can do. Every service the public is getting – cell phone, computer – is being delivered in some way by fiber.”

Council responds

Councilwoman Ruth Jensen said the calls she has received from citizens were about 50 percent on each side but she doesn’t want people to go along to get along.

What the city started out with originally with UTOPIA is not what is being asked of the city now, she explained. “UTOPIA dumped this in our laps and if it fails it’s Brigham City’s fault because we didn’t want it enough,” she said.

Jensen explained she didn’t sign the letter sent out by the city council and mayor because it didn’t agree with what she knows. She said she asked a city staffer why the rescind date (deadline for opting out of the UTOPIA contract) wasn’t included in the letter sent to the citizens. The staffer told her it was because they were afraid more people would want to opt out.

Jensen has talked to nice little old senior citizens who don’t use the computer anymore but they knew they needed to help Brigham City so they signed up anyway. “I feel bad for riding this on their little backs,” she said.

Jensen asked the council to set a public hearing for next week in a bigger location and to extend the time that people could opt out of their contracts.

Councilman Bob Marabella explained that a citizen won’t have to pay for UTOPIA if they don’t sign up. “If you play golf, you pay for it. If you don’t want to play you don’t pay. If you don’t want to be part of UTOPIA don’t penalize the rest of us,” he said.

“I assumed from the name of Utah Taxpayers Association that they were looking out for us, the taxpayers. If they were they wouldn’t want UTOPIA to fail. I’m dumbfounded. If this fails, we’ll have to ask to go to the budget to pay. That makes no sense. It’s crazy.”

Councilman Bruce Christensen explained that when prospective businesses consider Brigham City the first question they ask is “Do you have fiber optics?”

“I don’t like how we’re having to do this. But it is the way it is. We’ve gone too far to make changes,” he concluded.

Councilman Reese Jensen said this is much bigger than Brigham City. The city has locked arms with the other UTOPIA cities and they took on a major project. Brigham City is the flagship. The other cities are watching closely to see if it is plausible to use this approach.

“We’ve got to make it work. We’re past the point of no return. I paid a higher price than most – this cost me the election. Still, I wouldn’t do anything different. We’re looking to the future,” he explained.

“I’ve never had such an outpouring of input. The UTA mailing awakened a sleeping giant. In the last two weeks, 80 percent of the input I’ve received has been in favor of UTOPIA. I believe the silent majority is in favor. We’re not inclined to buckle to the outcry of the minorities. We’re acting in the best interest of the city. Let’s stop haggling, lock arms and get it done,” he concluded.

Mayor Lou Ann Christensen told the crowd that when Brigham City switches over to UTOPIA it will save $1,000-$3,000 a month for telecommunication services and the cost will be repaid in 8-10 years. Along with the monthly savings the city will provide more efficient services through remote monitoring/operation and security. Brigham City will own the fiber optic network, just like roads, water, sewer and electric infrastructure.

Brigham City will pay a total of $482,000. The money will come from: the $300,000 set aside in the 2008-09 budget for the UTOPIA pledge (none of which has been called upon); $75,000 in the capital project fund for an impact fee study that is no longer needed; $11,658 refund for the city’s UTOPIA building connections; $19,760 in cost savings on capital projects that were completed under budget. The remaining $75,343 will be taken from utility fund expenditures.