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The Last Mile: Can Delaware Deliver?

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director, A Better Delaware 

On Sept. 16, 2021, Delaware lawmakers unveiled a plan to address a much-needed infrastructure improvement project – implementing high-speed broadband across the entire state. This $110 million investment was made possible with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and if completed will make Delaware the first in the nation to make wired broadband available to every home and business in the state.

The need for statewide high-speed broadband was made glaringly obvious at the onset of the pandemic when many residents were forced to rely on internet service to work, learn, attend doctor’s appointments, worship, and communicate with friends and family.

Delaware is ranked first in the nation for overall internet speed but ranks 24th in rural access. Currently, 11,600 Delaware homes and businesses entirely lack broadband access. Prior to the pandemic, 16 percent of Delaware’s workers relied on internet use daily for teleworking, while after the onset of the pandemic, 45 percent relied on it. “Internet deserts” were quickly revealed, especially across western Sussex County.

Knowledge of these deserts is nothing new though, and is something the state has been working on since 2019 when it entered a $2 million contract with Bloosurf, a Maryland-based internet service provider which is able to serve areas not covered by the area’s leading providers, Comcast and Verizon, or not covered for a reasonable price. The upfront installation fees were paid by the state and contracts were offered for as low as $30 for low-income households with children.

A continuation of this type of assistance happened in October 2020 with the help of the CARES Act which funded Connect Delaware – a $20 million program which allowed Bloosurf, Comcast, and BridgeMAXX to expand service to 517 homes and increase internet speeds for 350 existing users to better serve students.

Connect Delaware also subsidized internet service for low-income students (typically with internet hotspots) who had suddenly come to rely on high-speed internet for their education, and a total of 25,789 were provided through AT&T, Comcast, Medicom, and Verizon. The Department of Technology and Information (DTI) managed the program and provided support throughout.

While the process seems to have run smoothly, it’s possible funds and resources could have been more thoughtfully allocated, but with the time constraints of the CARES Act, all funds had to be used by December 31, 2020.

Currently, the $110 million allocated should cover all expenses with some change to spare – according to a strategic plan developed in late 2020 and issued in May 2021, the project is estimated to cost $75 million. At this time, no official plan has been launched and the DTI website suggests that details regarding the plan will be released sometime in October.

Maryland is already a leader in broadband when it comes to overall connectivity, with service accessible to more than 95 percent of its residents with the goal of reaching 100 by 2026. Their goal is significantly more expensive, with an expected price tag of $300 million. Many other east coast states are similarly positioned with New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia residing in the top 10 states for connectivity.

One of the main differences between these states and Delaware is that they all have either passed legislation or have legislation pending that addresses broadband issues. It’s important for Delaware to develop one as well to address the project comprehensively with specific goals, procedures, and authorities.

With the proper guidelines in place, getting to 100 percent connectivity is a reasonable goal. The strategic plan estimates that the number of Delawareans without access to high-speed broadband could be brought down by approximately 87 percent if providers were to extend their existing networks just half a mile from their current cutoff points. This approach is called “edge-out.” This approach lends itself to utilizing multiple means of connecting through cable, fiber, fixed wireless, mobile, wireline DSL, and satellite broadband. The plan also suggests using the funding to replace old and failing equipment to ensure that the investment is something that will benefit all Delaware residents for years to come.

The resiliency and success of broadband service and access in in our state depends on the utilization of  multiple technologies and a competitive marketplace which will ensure fair pricing and more choices for all Delawareans.

 

States Bolster Program Evaluation Work With American Rescue Plan Funds

From: The Pew Charitable Trusts  The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides funding for states to address immediate challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to develop sustainable solutions to help their economies recover. To meet these goals, the law includes $195 billion in flexible funding for states to use for various services and capacity-building efforts. And in a push to improve the efficacy of state programs, the money can be used for “data analysis, targeted consumer outreach, improvements to data or technology infrastructure, and impact evaluations.”

Since ARPA’s enactment in March, Results First has encouraged states to focus on that last potential use of the federal money: investing in impact evaluations. These are rigorous assessments of programs’ effectiveness that can inform decisions about which interventions to support, revise, or eliminate; they are key components of evidence-based policymaking efforts. Read more.

Keeping Local Governments’ Hands out of the Broadband Cookie Jar

From: Citizens Against Government Waste

Despite the availability of $800 billion for infrastructure projects, including broadband, the bipartisan infrastructure package includes another $65 billion for broadband deployment.  The funding is being made available with few, if any, guardrails against local governments using the funding to overbuild over top existing broadband networks, and it is neither vendor nor technology neutral.

The need for access to broadband was never made clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when tens of millions of Americans suddenly needed to go online to work, learn, and socialize.  As a result of the investment of more than $1.8 trillion by the private sector to create the technology necessary to build the world’s most resilient networks, a competitive marketplace, and mostly light touch regulations, the U.S. telecommunications network held up far better than its global counterparts.  In June 2020, a few months into the lockdowns and shutdowns, fixed and mobile broadband download speeds in the U.S. were 150 percent and 75 percent higher, respectively, than the comparable global median download speeds.

Americans can now get connected through multiple means, including cable, fiber, fixed wireless, mobile, wireline DSL, and satellite broadband.  Families and businesses in hard-to-reach areas of the country have found that newer technologies like TV white space and low-earth orbit satellites are making the internet more accessible.  Consumers continue to reap the benefits of these technologies.  U.S. Telecom reported in its “ 2021 Broadband Pricing Index” that the U.S. has made three times the investment in broadband deployment and adoption as the European Union, resulting in better service and higher speeds at a lower cost, even with the increased usage during the pandemic.

While the best way to allow this incredible progress to continue would be to keep the government out of the way, President Biden’s June 9, 2021 “competition” Executive Order (EO) and his American Jobs Plan both prioritize a single technology (fiber) and networks owned or operated by local governments, cooperatives, and nonprofits rather than private companies.  The resiliency and success of broadband service and access depends on multiple technologies and a competitive marketplace.  A single technology and limited providers will result in higher prices, fewer choices, and less innovation, among other adverse consequences. Read more here.

 

VIEWPOINT: Delaware needs an inspector general avatarJacob Owens October 25, 2021

From: Delaware Business Times

Two recent revelations – the indictment of Delaware’s Auditor of Accounts and the existence of secretive state contracts with the largest mental health and substance abuse services provider involving tens of millions of tax dollars – puts the need for a nonpartisan, independent State Office of the Inspector General in the spotlight once again.

The inspector general not only would be authorized to investigate possible illegal activities of state agency officials, but also could investigate mismanagement issues that otherwise do not rise to the level of a crime but are detrimental to Delaware and its citizens.

Because an inspector general can act in concert with the Delaware Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a State Office of the Inspector General, promoting ethical and legal behavior and stopping agency mismanagement and abuse of office, would benefit all Delawareans.

It is important to note that citing agency mismanagement is not in any way a condemnation of the many Delaware state employees who serve with integrity and dedication.

But when state agencies fail in their missions, exceed their boundaries, or ignore their inherent responsibilities, the public has the right to demand solutions and expect them to be implemented.

Transparency, accountability, and “in the public interest” are essential guideposts to assist Delaware state-agency officials in making decisions and carrying out policies for the well-being, safety, and happiness of Delaware’s citizens, as well as properly using taxpayer money and following state laws.

When state agencies dismiss these guideposts and fail to employ effective internal controls, misconduct, mismanagement, and neglect of office swiftly can lead to conflicting policies and actions and even fraud. Read more.

Steel company to build turbine bases for wind project off the DE-MD coast

From: Delaware Business Now

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday  joined Ørsted and Crystal Steel in Caroline County on the state’s Eastern Shore to announce Maryland’s first offshore wind steel fabrication center.

“The entire mission of my administration has been to leave our state in better shape for future generations,” said Hogan. “That means adding jobs, it means making Maryland more affordable, and it also means investing in our state’s energy future. That’s exactly why I’m so pleased to celebrate this transformative partnership between Ørsted and Crystal Steel to establish Maryland’s very first offshore wind steel fabrication center.”

The $72 million partnership will allow Crystal Steel to increase its workforce by 30% in order to construct Ørsted’s turbine foundations. These turbines will provide renewable energy to 1.3 million homes across the state.

The turbines would operate about 20 miles off the coast of Fenwick Island, DE, and Ocean City, Md at Ørsted’s Skipjack wind farm.

Ocean City officials want to move the turbines and towers further offshore, claiming the structures will damage tourism. Wind power backers say the turbine towers that are equal in height to large skyscrapers will amount to a dot on the horizon.

While the Skipjack power would be counted toward Maryland’s renewable energy mandate, Ørsted says the wind farm will boost the Delaware economy.

Ørsted expects electric lines from Skipjack to come ashore in Delaware, with the Indian River Power Plant site a possible candidate. The coal-fired plant could close as early as next year.

Hogan noted that Maryland has experienced the nation’s fourth-fastest job growth and was recently named the most improved state for business in America.

Is the Diamond State Port a Sinking Ship?

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director, A Better Delaware

The Port of Wilmington on paper should be a profitable industry that brings Delawarean’s many maritime jobs. It is a top importer of fresh fruits and is in a favorable geographic position to allow truckers easy access to the nations interstate system. Despite this, the state-run Diamond State Port Corp was operating in the area with a $10 million loss annually. Their solution was to lease the port in 2018 to Gulftainer, a port operator based out of the United Arab Emirates. This decision was celebrated at first, but it is currently unclear if the $600 million deal  will turn profitable.

According to Gulftainer, it has continually lost money over the past three years.  Yet according to the American Journal of Transportation, Wilmington Port’s revenue increased by 50 percent year over year, including with the pandemic. This lack of cash by Gulftainer  is even more troubling when observing that they received $7 million from the federal government’s PPP program as well as a line of credit through their mortgage worth up to $350 million. Why has our state investment been delayed compared to other ports,  when food shipments seem to have held up well and financial resources abundant?

Additionally during the peak of the pandemic the State allowed for the company to postpone investing an additional $250,000,000 into the construction of a new container terminal. State permits for the facility had been approved albeit through questionable legislation which gave Gulftainer an advantage against other competitors. Senator Thomas Carper used his congressional influence to insert terms into the America’s water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (which he co-sponsored) that were specifically favorable to the company. These provisions include allowing Gulftainer to dispose of dredged material at federal dredge disposal sites for almost no cost and changing the environmental rules surrounding the Edgemore former chemical site by allowing for development permits to be issued for the port without the environmental studies that are typically required.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeffery Bullock with the help of our legislators made an amendment to Gulftainers original lease agreement. This amendment has effectively lowered the annual fee that Gulftainer pays to Delaware in exchange for the erasure of debt that Delaware owed to the company. The debt was revealed to be $13,400,000, but they failed to disclose the interest rate that Delaware was paying on the loan. Without this information, it is impossible to tell if this was a move made in the taxpayers favor or a money saving maneuver for the state.

There was also an attempt to gain access to emails sent between Gulftainer officials and the executive director of the Diamond State Port Corp that were denied. Refusing to make this information public knowledge may be indictive of either wrongdoing or an even an unfavorable economic forecast of the company’s future.

The Port of Wilmington has the potential to become one of Delaware’s greatest assets. It remains to be seen if Gulftainer will be able to turn the port profitable, with its current lack of financial management. It is clear however that offering Gulftainer favorable treatment and failing to publicly disclose all its dealings are troubling business practices by our State that should be questioned. Continued lack of accountability and transparency within our state government will erode public trust and discourage economic growth in Delaware.

 

 

 

 

 

State Senate releases draft district maps for public review

From: Delaware Public Media

State senators have released the first drafts of new district maps today.

In Delaware, state lawmakers are responsible for drawing the maps that split the state up for the next ten years.

And a ten percent increase in population from 2010 means the state senate districts have changed dramatically.

Districts around some of Delaware’s larger cities have shifted to be represented by just one state senator, Middletown being a prominent example alongside Smyrna.

Newark’s districts have also shifted, as was predicted by Senate President Pro Temp Dave Sokola. Sokola says Newark’s districts may look different because many students who are typically counted during the census were absent last year during the pandemic.

And according to senate staff, none of the current state senators have been pushed out of their own districts, although the districts they represent may encompass entirely new cities. Read more.

Wilmington officials, workers now required to take annual ethics training

From: Delaware Live 

Wilmington elected officials, appointed officials and city employees will be required to participate in annual ethics training thanks to an ordinance passed during Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The proposal, sponsored by the council’s lone Republican member, James Spadola, passed with 10 council members voting ‘yes.’

Councilwomen Shané Darby, D-District 2, and Yolanda McCoy, D-District 6, voted ‘present,’ and Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, D-At Large, was absent.

Under the ordinance, the city’s mayor, treasurer, council members and full-time city employees will be required to attend or watch a recording of an Ethics Commission-approved training presentation, then submit a certification verifying they attended the session.

“It’s important for ethics to be ever-present in our minds as we’re going about our day-to-day business,” Spadola said while introducing the ordinance. “This is about preventing unintentional mistakes due to not being up to speed on the ins and outs of the law.” Read more.

Housing Authority: No federal money had to be returned by Oct. 4

From: Delaware Live

It’s unclear how much the Delaware State Housing Authority has spent of the nearly $300 million it has received for rental assistance.

While some officials had feared that updated guidance from the U.S. Treasury would require the state to return that money as early as Monday, Oct. 4, a spokeswoman for the authority said Thursday, “There is no Oct. 4 deadline for returning funds.”

She declined to comment further.

The Delaware Housing Assistance Program, or DEHAP, was created to provide emergency housing assistance to renters affected by shutdowns, closures, layoffs, reduced work hours, unpaid leave or financial hardship related to COVID-19.

Delaware was awarded approximately $200 million in emergency rent relief funds out of the $46.6 billion dedicated nationally through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

Additional funds have been allocated by the federal government since, bringing the total amount of assistance available closer to $300 million.

Based on updated guidance released Monday by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, all states, counties and cities that had not dispersed at least 30% of their federal funds and allocated at least 65% of their money by Sept. 30 could be forced to return funding. Read more.

State to spend $50 million to help people qualify for better jobs

From: Town Square Live

Delaware will put $50 million of COVID-19 relief money into workforce development, but exactly how that money will be spent isn’t clear.

The plan was announced by Gov. John Carney Tuesday morning without an explanation of where the money would go. A press release from his office two hours later listed some projects that will receive money but gave little detail on specifically how it will be used.

To pay for the initiatives, Carney plans to tap the more than $1 billion in COVID-relief funds Delaware received from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus package aimed at hastening the economic recovery from the pandemic.

“We’re focused on investments that will build on the strengths of Delaware’s world-class workforce and support Delaware families and businesses who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Carney said at the press conference. “These workforce development programs will help Delawareans develop the skills they need to succeed in a 21st-century economy.” Read more.