Council members balk at $20M ‘blank check’ for citywide broadband pilot

Council members balk at $20M ‘blank check’ for citywide broadband pilot

by Lee Chilcote

(Plain Press, October 2021)   A proposal to allocate $20 million to help bridge the digital divide in Cleveland by creating citywide broadband met with some opposition at Monday’s city council meeting, with some members asking why there wasn’t more community involvement or a concrete plan in place. 

     After the legislation was approved during a joint finance and development, planning, and sustainability committee meeting, Ward 3 council member Kerry McCormack and Ward 16 council member Brian Kazy voted against it. 

     “I view the digital divide as a top issue for the city,” said McCormack. “However, this legislation was introduced August 18 and passed out of one committee hearing. It seemed like a blank check. It was rushed, there was very little conversation about it, and it was 20 million dollars.”

     McCormack and other council members have been complaining for months about the lack of public input into how Cleveland will spend $511 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Council members have met to discuss their priorities, but no community meetings have been organized by the city or the council. The city has collected input through an online and paper survey. 

     McCormack compared the city’s lack of comprehensive planning around ARPA with the Lead Safe Cleveland effort, which involved dozens of groups and hundreds of citizens coming together over the course of two years to craft a plan to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. A similar process is needed when it comes to citywide broadband, he said. 

     Instead, McCormack said, council members are being asked to vote on piecemeal funding requests without having a larger plan in place. In addition to the recommended $20 million for citywide broadband, city council on Tuesday voted to approve $5 million to support expansion of the Cleveland Food Bank. McCormack supports both priorities, but he wants to see how the funding fits into a broader plan. 

     “We should have a holistic, comprehensive conversation around our strategic vision for the ARPA funds,” said McCormack, who is also vying to become city council president. “This $511 million is almost as much as the city’s general fund, and we’ve only spent a few weeks debating it.” 

A push for broadband

     City council president and mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley, who spearheaded the $20 million broadband push, countered that the need to address the digital divide is urgent. As recently as 2020, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance named Cleveland the worst connected big city in the U.S. 

     “As far as I’m concerned, the time is now,” Kelley said. “Before, we didn’t have the funding to do something like this. This is Cleveland’s commitment to providing broadband for residents.”

     Kelley argued that by allocating the $20 million in funding now, Cleveland can pair these funds with grants awarded to Digital C, a nonprofit that focuses on digital literacy and providing Clevelanders with high-speed affordable internet. In July, the Mandel and Myers Foundations awarded Digital C $20 million in grants to help get more people connected to the internet. 

     “We can leverage the $20 million that was given by the Myers and Mandel foundations,” he said. “The legislation was introduced a month ago, and everyone’s had an opportunity to review and comment on it.”

     Those opposed to the broadband proposal also voiced concern about the amount, asking how Kelley and others arrived at $20 million. 

     They did not receive a clear answer. When McCormack raised questions about the science behind the broadband proposal at the joint finance and development, planning, and sustainability meeting, city finance director Sharon Dumas stated, “There was no science to the $20 million.” 

     Kelley, for his part, explained that the $20 million was an estimate based on the availability of “matching” funds from the Myers and Mandel foundations, as well as an additional $20 million that the state of Ohio is considering. He said that $60 million amount would allow the city reach its target of 40,000 households, approximately half of those underserved in Cleveland. 

     In a separate interview, Kelley clarified that no vendor has been selected, noting that the city would shop around and potentially work with multiple vendors.  

     “If I used the word match, the grant funds are not intended as match dollars,” he said. “Yes, in order to access the $20 million from the Myers and Mandel foundations, we’d have to work with Digital C, but we’re not going to do a direct award of this size. It’s good practice to do an RFP (request for proposals). But this is the direction we’re going.”

Community pushback

     Community leaders have argued that there’s a need for more planning. In a July 4, 2021 op-ed, John Corlett, director of the Center for Community Solutions, called for communities to “slow down spending, speed up planning” when it comes to ARPA funds. 

     Digital equity advocate Adam King, who is spearheading a group called Connected NEO, agreed. “There’s no plan in place to spend the money,” he said. “I see it as a bid to increase the likelihood of getting elected in November. Twenty million dollars seems suspicious right now.”

     For its part, Digital C welcomed the push for citywide broadband, and said it hoped to work together with the city to build a network.

     “We need citywide broadband as quickly as we can get it to everyone at an affordable price,” said Dorothy Baunach, CEO of Digital C. She said the city should choose the best provider and that Digital is working to create a “shovel-ready” plan. 

     “We’d love to work more closely with the city and be part of where they’re allocating the money,” she said, adding that the Mandel and Myer foundation grants were a vote of confidence. “We’ve certainly got a plan.” 

     Although Kelley acknowledged that nothing much will happen until a new mayor takes office in January, he said the legislation allows the city to begin to tackle the digital divide instead of just debating it. 

     “We could talk about this forever,” he said. “We’re stepping up and putting some skin in the game.”

     View the citywide broadband legislation here:

Editor’s Note: This article was produced and provided to the Plain Press by The Land. The Land is an online newsletter that reports on Cleveland neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. To subscribe to The Land visit: The author of this article, Lee Chilcote, is editor of The Land. 

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