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Otis special town meeting voters back broadband network activatio

OTIS >> Dozens of home and business owners view high speed Internet service as crucial to attracting younger residents, boosting the local economy and improving the towns quality of life.

For those and other reasons, Tuesday’s special town meeting overwhelmingly backed the borrowing of $4 million of the $5.5 million needed toward the town’s share of the cost to build, install and activate a broadband network in collaboration with the state.

By a vote of 132 to 16, townspeople approved the loan that, combined with $1.8 million in funding from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), will fund the project. The extra $300,000 being borrowed is seen as a contingency, according to town officials.

Final approval is still needed at a townwide vote scheduled for Nov. 17 in order to exempt the bond from the tax levy limits of Proposition 2 1/2.

The special town meeting, by a 115-26 margin, also authorized the Board of Selectmen to buy property on Algerie Road for the proposed $6.4 million municipal wind turbine project. This summer, voters backed the funding measure that included money for the land purchase.

The broadband vote came without debate or discussion; that took place at a 90-minute information session prior to the special town meeting.

Proponents say the broadband project will bring Otis out of the stone age of its current Internet service, which is either outdated or non-existent in this rural South Berkshire Community.

“Every single person in that community wants broadband and wants it tomorrow,” said Bob Rosen, referring to the Otis Wood Lands housing development where he lives.

Many who spoke cited the inability to connect with clients or customers for their businesses or unable to please visiting relatives eager for the latest high-tech entertainment.

“I have grandchildren and they don’t want to come because we don’t have [broadband],” said second-homeowner Steve Grossman.

Realtor Thom Garvey says the lack of high speed Internet in Otis has become a “deal breaker” in selling some homes, especially to young adults.

“House values are being compromised and home sales are being compromised right now,” he said.

Over the summer, the Selectmen, backed by the town’s Technology and Finance committees, agreed to break away from WiredWest, a cooperative of 44 rural Western Massachusetts towns working with the MBI to bring high-speed Internet service to the region.

Town officials balked at the prospect that WiredWest would own and control the network and farm out the Internet provider services, and they want the flexibility to decide who runs the system, so they will instead work directly with the state agency.

The voters green-lighting the Algerie Road purchase means town officials can continue negotiating a purchase price with a private foundation led by Edwin C. Williams. The land is assessed for tax purposes at $226,800 – the amount that was listed in Article 2, but that isn’t the pending sale price, according to town officials.

Once built, the wind turbine is expected to generate 6.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, with Otis needing only 350,000 kilowatt hours to run town-owned facilities. The rest of the electricity would be sold off to another government entity.

In August, officials outlined to special town meeting voters how the $6.4 million project financing would be in the form of Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, with the federal government covering 70 percent of the estimated 4.7 percent interest. Based on that figure, Otis taxpayers would pay close to 1.4 percent interest on the bonds.