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Alna’s broadband grant in question

Alna residents Ed Pentaleri, left, and Carrie Kipfer attend the June 21 selectmen’s meeting at the town office. SUSAN JOHNS/Wiscasset Newspaper

The $80,951 grant the ConnectME Authority approved for a broadband project in parts of Alna may be canceled in whole or in part next month because, it turns out, it may not be needed, ConnectME Program Director Lisa Leahy said June 22. Leahy and a Lincolnville Telephone Company executive confirmed in separate phone interviews, LTC is challenging ConnectME’s decision to award the grant. LTC is a parent company to Tidewater Telecom, which already serves parts of town the project would cover, LTC Vice President of Operations Randal Manning said. Challenges from other providers are not uncommon after awards are announced, Leahy said.

She said providers on proposed projects might not realize other companies already served or planned to serve those areas; and those companies, likewise, don’t always know about the proposed projects, although ConnectME puts them online before the board picks which projects to fund, she said. For the Alna grant, Leahy expects to see what she usually does when the Authority hears a grant’s target areas already have service. Everyone works together to see if service is lacking in any portion of the areas the grant targeted. A town can’t use the grant outside the areas named in the application; that would take a new application for the Authority to consider, Leahy explained. Manning on June 22 said he was open to seeing if anything could still be done via the grant to benefit Alna; the company just wanted to make sure ConnectME funds go where they are needed, he said.

Leahy said whatever approved Alna grant funds the Authority pulls, or “de-obligates,” would instead remain in the pool of money available for other projects. She said the matter will probably be sorted out in time for the Authority’s July 28 board meeting. At that time, the panel could decide on a full or partial “de-obligation” of the funding for the Alna project, Leahy said. Selectmen on June 21 were uncertain what would happen with the grant in light of the new developments, which Third Selectman Doug Baston first heard about in emails from Mike Edgecomb. Edgecomb helped Alna negotiate its new franchise agreement with Charter Communications, the company it later partnered with on the broadband proposal.

Edgecomb, of James W. Sewall Company in Old Town, prepared the grant application. In addition, one resident at the meeting, Carrie Kipfer, told the board she has the internet service; and two others, Beth Whitney and Ed Pentaleri, said Tidewater has informed them they could subscribe for access, as well. The grant and $103,532 from Charter were going to be used to provide access on Route 194 to the Whitefield and Newcastle lines and to Head Tide and Dock roads, reaching 73 potential subscribers, according to the application. Baston announced May 31, the town had won the grant.

Then on June 6, Baston got an email from Edgecomb stating he had heard from Tidewater. “I am not sure where this will go, but I wanted to give you a heads-up. I will contact ConnectME and see what they plan to do with this.”

Kipfer offered to contact Manning about coming in to meet with selectmen. Baston agreed and asked her to have Manning call him.

“It sounds like we ought to clear up the ambiguity, for sure,” Baston said. He said Alna has benefited no matter what happens with the grant, because the town has put no money into the project and, one way or the other, will have, or already has, the service it was seeking for those parts of town. A Charter spokesman declined comment Friday.

Also June 21, resident Ona Brazwell brought up the board’s past statements on residency requirements for Alna’s school-age children. She rents from Judy Fossel, who got a letter from selectmen in 2016 about her online rental ad that referred to Alna being a school choice town. Selectmen told Fossel if she rented seasonally to someone who then tried to get a tuition subsidy via school choice, they would tell the RSU the renters were not legitimate residents. Fossel called it censorship and said her ad said nothing about tuition. Brazwell read an email State Rep.

Jeff Hanley, R – Pittston, had forwarded her from Maine Department of Education school enrollment specialist Pamela Ford-Taylor. Neither property ownership nor year-round residence determine residency, according to Ford-Taylor’s email, which Brazwell provided at the Wiscasset Newspaper’s request. Baston told Brazwell she he had made her point, and he said she had wanted it in the press to encourage people to come to Alna. Alna and Westport Island have school choice for kindergarten through grade 12. Brazwell said, “I don’t want to encourage that.

I want to make sure the town of Alna is following state law.”

Baston said the superintendent of schools for Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12 decides students’ residency. “We’ve always left it to the superintendent,” he said. The board meets next at 6 p.m. June 28 at the town office.