Broadband Council has been a disaster

If spending taxpayers’ money at a rapid pace is the test of success for government – as some officials seem to think – West Virginia’s Broadband Deployment Council is a flop.

When the council was established five years ago at then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s request, legislators gave it $5 million to expand access to high-speed Internet service in the Mountain State.

Just $3.7 million in grants have been handed out. The council still has about $800,000 of its original allocation in the bank.

Asked to provide another $5 million, state legislators balked earlier this year. Now, council members are talking about disbanding.

At first glance, snail’s-pace spending by the council may have alienated some legislators who like big headlines involving millions of dollars’ worth of government initiatives.

But the headlines have been big during recent years – and embarassing.

Officials elsewhere in state government moved fast when they obtained $126.3 million in federal “stimulus” money. It turns out they wasted millions of dollars on unnecessarilly complex and expensive network routers.

Yes, it is true the council moved very slowly. It did not award any grants until last year.

It also is true Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators scrambled to balance the state budget. Rejecting the council’s $5 million request was an easy call.

But the council’s model may not be a bad idea. Consider what might have happened if the council had been involved in the $126.3 million project. Might the money have been spent slower – but with more accountability? We will never know, of course.

Also consider what the council has accomplished. Much of its efforts have been focused not on specific projects but on looking at state broadband needs and challenges as a whole. For example, the council has detailed maps of areas with and without broadband accessibility (available at www.broadband.wv.gov).

Finally, the council’s plan to close out its spending by providing detailed project audits and accountability reports is appealing.

Council members clearly are frustrated they did not receive the additional money they sought from the Legislature. But they should rethink their plan to dissolve the council. Some of that remaining $800,000 could be used to keep the agency in existence so it can plan for a time when West Virginia can afford more money for broadband work.

In terms of efficient use of such funding, Mountain State residents could – and did – do far worse than with the council.