One down, two to go: Fiber-to-home deal passes muster with Bloomington plan commission

Bloomington plan commission (June 13, 2022)

A deal between a Paris-based infrastructure company and the city of Bloomington, to construct a fiber-to-the-home open-access network offering symmetric 1-Gigabit service, took a step forward Monday evening.

On a unanimous vote, the city’s plan commission found that an already-approved redevelopment commission (RDC) resolution and its associated economic development plan—on which the Bloomington-Meridiam fiber deal depends—is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

That’s the first of three approvals the city’s administration is hoping to get this week for a tax increment finance (TIF) arrangement, that would see about $10.9 million in personal property taxes reimbursed to Meridiam over a 20-year period. That’s down from the estimated $14.4 million that had been previously negotiated for a 25-year period.

Next up will be an approval from the (economic development commission (EDC)), which the city administration is hoping to get at the EDC’s 4 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

That could be followed by an approval at this Wednesday’s city council meeting.

Last week, the city’s RDC took the first step towards all the approvals necessary when it passed the required declaratory resolution.

On Monday, the administration’s case for conformity with the city’s comprehensive plan was presented to the plan commission by development services manager Jackie Scanlan.

Scanlan ticked through the plan’s vision statement that talks about access to amenities for all. One of the biggest talking points in favor of the proposal is the digital equity component, which involves a $30 price-point for symmetric 250 Megabit service for lower-income residents. That works out to no cost, under the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

Scanlan also pointed to objectives in the category of community services and economics that involve increased availability of critical infrastructure or services as Bloomington grows and changes.

Included in Scanlan’s slide deck was a policy from the comprehensive plan that looks like it’s on point for the proposed arrangement with Paris-based Meridiam.

Policy 1.5.2: Partner locally to make available quality wired and wireless connectivity throughout the City of Bloomington

About that policy point, Scanlan said, “This is something that, obviously, the administration has been working on for a number of years, and we are getting close to fruition, seeing that happen.”

The word “locally” in the policy point did not draw comment or question from plan commissioners.

Plan commissioner Jillian Kinzie focused on the outcomes in the comprehensive plan—the metrics the community uses to judge the success of the policies in the plan. She was keen to see an outcome added that would include the number of actual connections to high-speed internet for low-income residents.

Much of what Meridiam has promised for its low-income program involves not just extending the fiber network to low-income areas of the city, but also providing support to low-income households to help them take advantage of the available connection.

Ron Smith, who serves as the city council’s representative on the plan commission, pointed to a goal in the plan that talks about public engagement. “I’m worried that we haven’t had much public engagement before we’re being asked to make a vote,” Smith said. Here’s what the comprehensive plan goal says:

Goal 1.6 Public Engagement: Commit to, and plan for, transparency, open government, and effective, accessible and inclusive public engagement so that exemplary services are provided to our residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, and visitors, while also promoting more participatory citizenship.

Responding to Smith, Bloomington IT director Rick Dietz said the effort to partner with a private firm to build an open-source fiber network has been going on since 2016. “We’ve had a number of public announcements about it,” Dietz said. Dietz said the current process of establishing the TIF mechanism is very public.

Dietz also pointed to the fact that Meridiam is a private company that wants to locate in Bloomington, which means that an element of the negotiations are going to be private.

Dietz indicated that if the reimbursement were not a component of the city’s support for Meridiam’s proposal, the current public process would not have been necessary. “If we weren’t going for the TIF, then this could just be a contract negotiated by the administration,” Dietz said. He added, “But we felt that not only did we want to provide the support, but we wanted the public process that goes along with it.”

Plan commission president Brad Wisler expressed some doubts about the substance of the proposal, independent of its conformance with the comprehensive plan. “I’ve never been quite comfortable with the idea of government being in the business of picking the winners in the marketplace. And that’s still difficult for me to get on board with,” Wisler said.

Wisler appreciated the fact that the initial advantage given to the internet service provider (ISP) selected by Meridiam would be only a temporary one. Under the deal, a not-yet-named ISP would have exclusive access to the network, which is supposed to become an open-access wholesale network after five to seven years.

Wisler said the purview of the plan commission was just to evaluate whether the proposal complies with the goals of the comprehensive plan. “I think clearly it does,” Wisler concluded.

9 thoughts on “One down, two to go: Fiber-to-home deal passes muster with Bloomington plan commission

  1. I find it disturbing that our tax dollars are being paid to a French company instead of one from the USA. Ditto with the failed Canadian venture which would have sent tax dollars to Canada. It seems that local business entities should be given chance to bid as their employees live here, pay taxes, attend schools, vote and generally participate in the community.

  2. The spider tif comes from our taxes which in turn goes to pay Meridiam. It may be “ indirect” if you prefer. I believe Meridiam desired it be set up as such. Actually, any funding for this venture is tax based. If we don’t collect (forgive) tax collections, we are “out” that much in our budget somewhere along the line. All tax deductions are lost revenue. I would prefer taxes be they local, state or federal go to domestic companies and even better if such domestic companies are local/regional

  3. This Administration certainly has a unique view of what constitutes transparency, and its disdain for such transparency is so endemic, it is internally unquestioned. But not surprising, after all. I supported the tax abatement for Catalent because of the number and scope of jobs such expansion credibly will provide. It may very well be that no private company would find the investment in laying fiber profitable without the abatement (as several prior deals failed); but touting “equity” when qualifying residents will receive 1/4 the speeds of other subscribers, seems disingenuous. And the degree of secrecy of details withheld from decision makers, whose role it is to be a check/balance, makes this a largely blind vote. What a way to govern!

  4. I have commented before that 1/4 of 1Gbs is still really fast and actually difficult to exceed (at least now). Perhaps that misses the point. If the difference in speed actually doesn’t matter, why limit the subsidized residents to 1/4 speed? Perhaps the only reason is that many people don’t like paying for something when someone else receives the same service at no cost. That doesn’t bother me either way. I’m currently paying $60/month for 300Mbs ATT fiber service.
    Where equity may become a significant issue is if future applications need much more bandwidth, or if the network can’t support all the users and the subsidized users are restricted to 1/4 of other user’s bandwidth. Example: if the network can only supply 100Mbs per user at a specific time, does everybody get 100? or do subsidized users get about 30 and others get about 120?

  5. I find it disturbing that council members said this was happening too quickly. It was publicized in November. Plenty of time for questions and discussions.

  6. A press release of a LOI with little to no crucial details forthcoming does not constitute a dialogue.

  7. I am very disturbed that a tax increment finance (TIF) arrangement would see about $10.9 million in personal property taxes reimbursed to Meridiam over a 20-year period. If we divide $10.9 million by 20 years, we get $545,000 per year. If we further divide that by the $30 price point for the low income population (only getting 1/4 of the access that the non-low income will receive), Bloomington will be able to serve 18,166 low income individuals. Are there 18,166 low income households in Bloomington? How many households are there in Bloomington?

    It is already possible to get the 1/4 megabit internet service, at a reasonable cost, in Bloomington with our existing commercial infrastructure. Why are we giving away $10.9 million dollars of personal property taxes to a business that will only be a third party to our internet service? Not only that, but Meridiam will hold 100% of the equity in the fiber project. The Bloomington resident, and the City of Bloomington will hold 0% equity. Why are we not investing $10.9 million in TIF funds on equity investments where the citizens and City of Bloomington have ownership, and some sense of control?

    My sense is that this this give-a-way of personal taxes/public funds is just a hollow attempt to bolster the realization of a mayoral campaign promise and re-election propagandizing that will continue Bloomington’s indentured servitude toward outside predatory investment entities that exploit our naive and vulnerable community.

    In this time of common sense, this Meridiam deal makes no sense at all.

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