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Lafayette, Colo., Will Put Municipal Broadband to a Vote

Because of a 2005 state law, cities must ask voters whether they can provide telecommunications services — essentially entering the marketplace with other companies such as Comcast.

(TNS) — Following in the wake of neighboring communities, Lafayette, Colo., officials voted Tuesday to refer a litany of issues to the November ballot — including municipal broadband and an increase in property taxes to fund a citywide EcoPass.

"It is important to make decisions on part of your community," former Nederland Mayor Joe Gierlach said at Tuesday night's meeting.

Under Gierlach in 2012, Nederland — working with Boulder County's transportation department — put together a similar program with about $90,000 from a federal grant administered by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and about $20,000 in matching funds raised through Boulder County's transit tax.

"In the first two years (of the program), ridership grew 45 percent," he said Tuesday night. "We were able to build programming around knowing that the fact that everyone had a free EcoPass. My recommendation is to allow (Lafayette) residents to make the decision — give them the option and the data and see what happens."

When Boulder County officials asked residents earlier this year to consider a proposal that would raise property taxes to help fund free mass transit passes, a poll suggested that voters would most likely reject a ballot initiative. In November, however, Lafayette officials are hoping that a similar program on a smaller scale will be better received among residents.

The tax initiative would increase property taxes by a 1.25 mill levy for the next six years to provide an EcoPass at no charge for every Lafayette resident who requests one. If voters get behind the measure in November, the proposal would likely increase the property tax by roughly $35 to $40 on a $350,000 home in Lafayette.

An EcoPass would provide unlimited rides on all RTD buses and trains throughout the Denver metro area, including Boulder County.

"I'm one of 60,000 people that drive to Boulder every day," resident Deryn Wagner said. "A lot of those people live in Lafayette. I think we owe it to the residents of Boulder County to think about the impact we make by driving to Boulder every day. If we were to provide a service to not just our residents but also our fellow citizens I feel that we would be doing a great service by providing that opportunity."

A survey taken by Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy Inc. last month suggested that if the election were held at this juncture, support for the lower-level EcoPass ($35) would have a 56 percent favorable support rate.

"I want to applaud you for even considering such an inclusive program," resident Jamie Harkins said. "My budget is tight but I would gladly take on this critical community need. The cost of living is skyrocketing in Colorado; this is just one tiny step to make the cost of living more affordable for your community."

Given the high percentage of Lafayette voters who feel things in the city is going in the right direction, the climate could very well be favorable for the 1.25 mill levy to raise $575,000 ($35/household) city EcoPass tax initiative to prove successful in November.

Municipal broadband

In addition to Tuesday's EcoPass decision, Lafayette's council voted to refer the increasingly sought-after option of municipal broadband to November's ballot.

The motion — providing options between three forms of community broadband: municipal, public-private or fully private — would follow in the footsteps of several other Boulder County communities, including the city of Boulder, Longmont and, earlier this month, Superior.

"We had discussed quite awhile back — the desire to cross the digital divide," Berg said earlier this month. "It's really just kind of housecleaning to provide more opportunities for more municipality."

Because of a 2005 state law, cities must ask voters whether they can provide telecommunications services — essentially entering the marketplace with other companies such as Comcast and CenturyLink.

Besides the perks of a faster internet connection, forced competition in the form of local government fosters positive business growth, according to attorney Ken Fellman.

"(Municipal broadband) gives any local government the ability to leverage their network investment to enter into competition with their own price and speed," Fellman said. "You don't have to be Longmont, but you can say to private actors, 'Look at these options we have.'"

If approved in November, the exemption from the law would allow Lafayette to consider numerous options for being involved in broadband services. Options include installing and leasing fiber to private entities, creating a public-private partnership to provide services or directly providing services, officials said.

"You're not at the end of the line, and you're not at the front of the line if you do this," said Fellman, who last month summarized municipal broadband and what an approval of a ballot question would allow for Erie's Board of Trustees. "We're going to see a whole lot more communities start to adopt this."

Last month, Erie officials weighed a plan to refer a similar initiative to voters. Because Erie does not have a regularly-scheduled municipal election in 2016, the price to place this one topic on an Erie ballot this year would have cost the town between $50,000 to $65,000. Instead, Erie officials opted to forgo the issue and will study it for possible inclusion on the 2017 ballot.

While an approval of the ballot item this fall would provide the town an option to begin offering broadband to residents, officials say they currently have no plans to begin such an offer.

©2016 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.