The current debate over the future of UTOPIA is not one of philosophy, whether we should continue, private versus public sector, or any of a number of issues that have been hashed over for the past decade. The decision to fund and build the network by an alliance of cities was made years ago. It is an acknowledged fact that original plans have not worked out as desired.
The question before the member cities is discerning the best course to stabilize and then minimize the costs of the system to their constituent taxpayers and also continuing to serve the 10,000 customers that are also constituent taxpayers. Ironically, in the midst of all of the negative portrayal of the system over the past number of months, the network has gained customers, gained revenue, paid on an ongoing basis the debt service of the last construction round of infrastructure out of the revenues generated and has continued to narrow the gap of the operational shortfall which we now debate. We are within sight of meeting the goal of breaking even on that operational shortfall and then will move on to the next hurdle — reducing and if possible eliminating the city contributions to the original construction of the system. The numbers are in. We’re improving at a consistent and demonstrable rate every month.
In the months preceding elimination of the operational shortfall, the Legislature has asked us to rethink our decision of using debt service to fund operations. This has of course always been the cities’ plan, but at the Legislature’s behest, we have moved that plan forward by a factor of a couple of years. The way to do this is to have the member cities themselves fund that gap on a short-term loan basis. Representatives of the cities have spent the past five months examining every possibility for reducing expenditures, increasing revenues at a faster rate than planned and eliminating that gap. As noted, we’ve made great progress towards that accelerated goal.
The fact that some gap remains, even as it shrinks, has to be addressed. If the original plan was not to be followed, then this evolution of that plan is the best option before us and is indeed working already.
The cities that have so far voted to not contribute to that operational need are simply wrong. Their decision puts them and the other cities on a more difficult path than the one they are trying to avoid. Not contributing to the organization will cost them more in the long run than what they are being asked to bear. Worse, these cities are making the organizational choice to place their fair burden of a decision made by their predecessors on their partner cities.
The system is growing stronger, physically and financially. To cut off support now is short-sighted in the extreme. To support growth of the system is to encourage success that we are seeing, and to keep all of the doors open to future opportunity to better the system. To cut off support now is to close those doors and ensure a guaranteed cost and result to the cities that will dissatisfy taxpayers and customers alike as far into the future as any of us are likely to be present for.
UTOPIA is not some faceless corporate structure. UTOPIA is us. We, the member cities committed to building and fostering the future in the form of telecommunications infrastructure that we know is necessary to our development growth. Just as other cities in past years supported other infrastructures, (think canals, railroads, electricity) often in the face of uninformed or self-interested opposition, we are now faced with the difficulty of doing something that is hard, but something that is right. We will work together, in a smart fashion, with knowledge gained over many years of hard experience, to overcome whatever difficulties arise to make this commitment work.
Wayne T. Pyle is the chariman of UTOPIA.