A $4.5 million bond issue on Hampden's ballot Tuesday has prompted a campaign from a sister organization to the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, urging a "no" vote. Credit: Brett Sayles / Pexels

An arm of a Portland-based conservative think tank is taking a leap into local politics and opposing Hampden’s proposed $4.5 million broadband bond issue on Tuesday’s ballot.

Maine Civic Action, a sister organization to the Maine Policy Institute, is paying for the campaign urging a “no” vote, which is taking place mostly on Facebook. The group has also sent out mailers and done canvassing in town, according to spokesperson Jacob Posik.

The Town Council has not launched a counter campaign in support of the proposal, which would allow the town to borrow money for a town-owned fiber optic network that would reach every home and business in town. If approved and constructed, the town would own the network, but service would be provided by Axiom Technologies LLC, based in Machias.

There are no reporting requirements for spending in campaigns about questions on municipal ballots.

The advocacy group’s venture into the campaign surrounding Hampden’s referendum question could be a sign of what’s to come as Gov. Janet Mills’ administration devotes millions of dollars to expanding broadband service in the state, with municipally owned broadband networks likely to figure into that expansion.

Maine Civic Action claims that a government-owned network is a waste of taxpayer money and that there are private firms serving Hampden residents that offer broadband service. The group says on a web page about the Hampden ballot question that municipally owned networks “often struggle to cover the cost of development and operations — providing lower-quality service, using technology that quickly becomes obsolete, and ultimately wasting resources and burdening local taxpayers with financing debts to pay off.”

Under Hampden’s proposal, subscriber fees — not property taxes — would be used to pay off the $4.5 million bond issue, the town’s economic development director, Amy Ryder, has said. Some 938 homes would need to connect to the network to allow the town to pay off the bond over 20 years.

Maine Civic Action also argues there are plenty of private internet firms serving Hampden.

Since the council voted to put the question on the ballot, TDS Telecom and Spectrum, two of those internet providers, announced that they would expand their all-fiber internet networks in Hampden to serve all of the town’s residents. That would bring high-speed internet to all but the northeast corner of town, where the business park is located.

A TDS representative was scheduled to address the Hampden Town Council at its Monday meeting.

The town decided to consider building its own network because about 335 homes in Hampden are considered to be underserved and only have DSL dial-up service, according to Town Manager Paula Scott. Those residents can only access internet speeds that are below the state standard of at least 50 megabits for receiving information and 10 megabits for sending information.

Scott said the town has been “very transparent about this all through the process.” That process included a broadband committee that made recommendations to the council and residents surveys.

If voters approve the referendum, the council would have to vote to issue the bonds before the town could seek bids to begin construction of the network.

Scott credited the town’s push to provide all residents with high-speed internet access with prompting private service providers to expand their networks in town.

“We consider this still a win for the town and would likely not embark on our own municipal model if these companies are going to finally service the unserved and underserved areas of town,” she said.

The push for a “no” vote on Hampden’s municipal broadband network likely isn’t going to be the last instance of Maine Civic Action wading into a local campaign. The group plans to get involved in more municipal discussions about the expansion of broadband networks.

“To put this in perspective, the budget of the state’s broadband development agency has ballooned from $1 million per year to more than $15 million in the current fiscal year,” Posik said. “The massive recent infusion of federal tax dollars into Maine has prompted state and local leaders to draft plans of how they will use these funds to build out these networks.”