MENOMONIE — Dunn County is looking to make it easier to expand broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
The County Board on Wednesday night supported a resolution to adopt a bill that would give telephone companies a tax exemption if they play a part in providing broadband to underserved areas.
Utility companies generally don’t pay property taxes but instead pay a separate utility tax, Supervisor James Tripp said. A portion of the tax the utility companies pay is allocated back to the counties.
“This exemption from this tax would be a decrease in funding that goes to the state, not to us,” Tripp said. “We may, if it went into effect, see a small decrease in share, but we’re only getting 20 percent anyways so our share would fairly small.”
Assembly Bill 344 exempts property used to provide broadband to rural or underserved areas from paying the telephone company tax paid in lieu of property taxes. According to the language of the bill “rural area” includes any in the state that is outside a federal metropolitan statistical area or is located in a city, village or town with a population of fewer than 14,000. “Underserved area” pertains to areas that have fewer than two service providers.
For providers to qualify for the exemption, they must provide internet access to rural areas at a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second.
The bill was introduced by Assembly members who represent portions of Dunn County last July. State Reps. Warren Petryk, R-town of Washington, Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, and Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, all introduced bill 344 while it was co-sponsored by Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls.
The County Board also supported a resolution in support of Landmark Conservancy to buy 562 acres of the Tyrone property within the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area in the town of Peru from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Since the early 1970s Northern States Power Co. — now Xcel Energy — has owned 4,200 acres of the property. In 2016 the board voted to support the purchase of 990 acres of the property by the DNR.
The DNR has approved the sale to Landmark Conservancy, and it has been passed on to the state’s Joint Finance Committee. Landmark Conservancy executive director Lindsey Ketchel said during public comments Wednesday night that the sale came before the Joint Finance Committee, but a vote wasn’t held and now Landmark Conservancy has been waiting for a decision for 18 months.
“It is going to help protect really important fisheries, expand hunting and recreation and more importantly protect water quality,” Ketchel said of the transfer of the land.
Supervisor Larry Bjork voted against the resolution. The land was previously home to farms and other residences and in a few cases it was purchased by NSP with threats of getting the government involved and using eminent domain, Bjork said. The public should have a chance to buy back family property, he said.
“I think it’s great idea, a great project, but I don’t like the way it came about,” Bjork said.
Supervisor Thomas Quinn understood Bjork’s concerns but he said they can’t take back what occurred during its original purchase by NSP. The best option is to now work to preserve that land for public use.
“The reality is if it’s not bought and put for public access and public use it’s more likely that Xcel Energy would look to get the highest value for it, and they’re certainly not going to make an effort to sell it back to the individuals,” Quinn said. “I wish we could undo it, but I don’t think that’s possible, so to me this is the best way to provide everybody with access to what is a unique and important property.”