Thursday, December 06, 2007

Stop the Sale!

The last paper mill in Groveton is closing at the end of this month, leaving 300 people without jobs. The North Country has lost nearly all of its manufacturing jobs – good paying jobs that are being replaced with low wage service jobs. I recently spoke with a woman in Groveton whose husband and other family members worked at the mill. She’s currently working 2 jobs to help put her kids through college. She told me that they’d probably have to move somewhere out of state in order to find decent paying jobs. Property in Groveton, she said, is slowly being sold to out of state folks who want to build second homes. Another community destroyed by our trade policies.

There is little chance of relief for our neighbors to the north. The pending Verizon Fairpoint deal will insure that the northern part of the state will remain in the technological dark ages for decades to come. Verizon wants to sell its northern New England land lines to Fairpoint for $2.7 billion. If the sale goes through, Verizon will abandon its “low value” customers – primarily rural- and keep the profitable customers (Big Business) and wireless. Verizon would qualify for a $700 million tax break, and would still control 60% of Fairpoint. It’s a great deal for Verizon. Fairpoint is a small company that is already carrying a heavy debt load, and will need to borrow $1.7 billion to finance the sale. Fairpoint would also pay Verizon $100 million to continue its billing for the first four months until they are ready to run a network that is about 6 times of what it currently owns. If Fairpoint isn’t ready in 4 months, the meter will continue to run.

You’ve probably seen the Fairpoint TV commercials where a farmer in Fryeburg, Maine speaks about how great their service is in a rural area. Compared to say…Colombia, NH, Fryeburg is the big city. One wonders at how a big, expensive ad campaign is supposed to reassure us that a company already far in debt is going to expand northern NH’s infrastructure needs. What infrastructure there is has been poorly maintained by Verizon, and will require serious investment if we are to move forward in the global market economy. A company that seems to be biting off more than it can chew isn’t going to help us move forward.

It’s interesting to read about the support for this deal. Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who lives in Bath (an area living in the technological dark ages) is in favor of it. So is State Representative Gene Chandler, who isn’t exactly Mr. Tech Savvy, as we all learned last year. It will be worth following the campaign money trail to learn why these two men are acting against the best interests of their constituents.

State Senators Deborah Reynolds, Jackie Cilley, and Robert Letourneau are seeing it a little differently. They collaborated on an editorial that was recently printed around the state. This bi-partisan triumvirate expressed a great deal of concern for the future of economic development and job creation in our state.

According to an analysis done by Jobs With Justice, nearly nine out of ten letters filed with the NH Public Utilities Commission (PUC) oppose the sale. Of comments from elected officials, 97% opposed the sale. Only two were in favor of it. Fairpoint and Verizon are both calling the report flawed. Fairpoint Chairman Gene Johnson has dismissed the letters as the result of “a tremendous political campaign by the unions.” He claimed that hundreds of people spoke up on behalf of Fairpoint at the public hearings. Now, I didn’t go to all of the hearings, but at the one I attended, there were fewer than five people who stood up in support of Fairpoint. Sure the union folks are worried about losing their jobs and pensions, why wouldn’t they be? Fairpoint has a very small percentage of union jobs in its current holdings. Given the load of debt they’ll be staggering under, they’re going to have to drive down wages and benefits, else they’ll be in trouble with shareholder dividends.

Many of us are already dissatisfied with the kind of “service” we experience from Verizon. Fairpoint will almost certainly continue to provide us with marginal service, while charging us more for it. How this will translate into upgrading internet service to rural customers is fairly predictable. It won’t translate. The rural customer will be left dangling, while Verizon laughs all the way to the bank. At least in the southern parts of the state, customers have options other than Verizon. We in the north are beholden to the Verizon monopoly. If we are lucky we have DSL, which is already outdated, and being presented by Fairpoint as an improvement. No fear of FIOS in the north, folks. As the manufacturing jobs continue to be exported overseas, there is no chance that we’ll be competitive in the global marketplace. Northern NH will continue to try to exist on a tourist economy, despite global climate change, and continue to provide all the low paying service jobs one could ask for. And on top of that – our phone bills will be going up.

There is still time to contact your elected officials and the PUC and tell them you oppose this sale. Maine will be deciding on December 13, and Vermont and New Hampshire will decide in January.

“They own 300,000 miles of lines in six states. They’re taking over 1.5 million miles. It’s like Joe’s Paving taking on I-93.” Mike McLaughlin, attorney for the AFL-CIO.

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