Unions say telecom vote threatens jobs
By Pat Kinney, Business Editor
Waterloo Cedar-Falls Courier
Saturday, October 29, 2005

WATERLOO, IA --- The Black Hawk Union Council AFL-CIO opposes the Nov. 8 vote to create a municipal telecommunications utility in Waterloo, saying it threatens private telecommunications workers' jobs.

A yes vote to create the utility will deter private business expansion and job growth by telecommunications employers, said union council president Steve Abbott, a member of the Communications Workers of America and an employee of Qwest in Waterloo.

Abbott and former State Auditor Richard Johnson, a spokesman for anti-referendum Project Taxpayer Protection, made comments at a press conference outside Waterloo City Hall Friday.

Johnson said a yes vote threatens taxpayers with inordinate public expense. "Employees at Qwest and Mediacom and all the other employees working to provide these services to the citizens here are also at risk," he said.

"I think that's a fair assumption to make," Abbott said.  "We have over 250 employees in the city, and just couple of months ago we did a site walk-through with some senior managers at our company.  And I am not here speaking for the company, of course, but trying to encourage them to bring more jobs to Waterloo.  We have a building we can house more employees in.  Definitely, any expansion would be at risk on our part here."

Abbott could not guarantee a Qwest expansion if the vote fails.  "If it passes, there wouldn't be.  I can say that," he said.

A local group called Opportunity Waterloo, headed by developer Rick Young and orthodontist/hotelier Ross Christensen, is supporting the referendum to establish the framework for a municipal communications utility in Waterloo, similar to those that exist in Cedar Falls, Independence and other local communities.

The referendum would allow the city to establish a telecommunications utility and proceed with a feasibility study.  A second referendum would be necessary to spend public funds to build it, Opportunity Waterloo proponents have said.

Several privately owned telecommunications and utility companies bitterly oppose the proposal.  Proponents, meanwhile, are dissatisfied with the service those companies have provided locally.

"Our challenge today is to ask the people who are promoting this to make a pledge that they will not use taxpayers' money to promote and develop this project," Johnson said.  "And we're making that challenge not only to the Opportunity Waterloo people but to the City Council."

"We are not asking for (taxpayer) money to invest in any system at this time," Opportunity Waterloo co-chairman Rick Young said.  Any public bond issue for that purpose would require 60 percent voter approval.  He also said that, contrary to Johnson's assertions, the state Legislature now precludes any issuance of nonvoter-approved revenue bonds for such a purpose.

The Opportunity Waterloo group resulted from the Opportunity Iowa initiative of telecommunications entrepreneur Clark McLeod of Cedar Rapids.  Last year, he proposed creating a network of city-owned telecommunications utilities.  Cities could build, lease or buy their own telecommunications systems.

While opponents have said Opportunity Iowa is a profit-making scheme by McLeod, Young said dominant local cable provider Mediacom is the driving force behind Project Taxpayer Protection.

Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 291-1494 or pat.kinney@wcfcourier.com.