Minnesota broadband project stuck in federal stimulus time warp

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A costly government-owned broadband network in northern Minnesota is stuck in a sort of stimulus time warp.

Six years after passage of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the Lake Connections network remains under construction and behind schedule. It faces losing millions in Rural Utilities Service money, because the federal stimulus program ends later this year.

“I know we’ve got construction going heavy. We’re fighting hard to get on that deadline,” said Lake County Commissioner Peter Walsh. “… I’m sure things could be better, but we’ll see how things go at this point.”

Lake County has hired former RUS administrator Hilda Legg — for $5,000 a month — to lobby her former agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it’s down to the wire on a project that has been building from behind since it was approved in early 2011.

“They’re out of time, I think. It’s the time line. Poor planning is what I think,” said Larry Sandretsky, line superintendent for Cooperative Light and Power, a key contractor on the project.

Lake County has burned through just 60 percent of a $66.5 million federal loan and grant to build the broadband network north of Duluth, RUS officials tell Watchdog Minnesota Bureau. Neither Lake County Administrator Matt Huddleston nor Lake Connections General Manager Jeff Roiland replied to requests for comment.

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