Orleans-Niagara see strength in 2-county ‘marriage’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 30 June 2014 at 12:00 am

Photo by Tom Rivers – Niagara County Legislature Chairman William Ross addresses the Orleans County Legislature last week with Niagara County Legislature David Godfrey.

ALBION – Initially, leaders from the Orleans and Niagara counties formed an alliance about two years ago to try to get Broadband Internet into rural pockets of the two lakeshore counties.

But the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance has become much more than that. The group has fought a binational plan for regulating levels of Lake Ontario, joined forces to pressure the federal government to dredge harbors in the two counties, and now is looking to share services with purchasing.

“It’s been a tremendous marriage and I only see it getting better in the future,” William Ross, Niagara County Legislature chairman, told the Orleans legislators during their meeting last week.

Niagara had an alliance with Erie County, but Ross said that fell apart. Orleans officials have been far more receptive and the two counties seem to have more in common as southshore Lake Ontario counties with lots of rural landscape.

“This is just the beginning of NORA,” Ross said about the alliance. “It’s been successful and it will be successful because of the people involved in it.”

The two counties are close to releasing a request for proposals for companies to provide high-speed Internet to “unserved rural access points,” said David Godfrey, a legislator from Niagara County.

The two counties see Internet service as “absolutely essential” for their residents to run businesses, fill out job applications, do homework and have a 21st Century quality of life.

Godfrey and Orleans County Legislator Lynne Johnson of Lyndonville represented NORA during a June 16 public hearing at the University of Buffalo about the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner.

“We are here today as a unified voice of our two counties who are desperately in need of high-speed internet service at every address point in our rural towns,” Godfrey and Johnson told the Public Service Commission. “Today’s agricultural enterprises leverage cutting edge bio-technology, renewable energy, and hi-tech heavy equipment which depend on the Internet.”

Godfrey and Johnson said a bigger “Comcast plus Time Warner” will be less responsive to rural areas. They said the merged company should include a board member representing customers and another seat representing “the voice of the government.”

They noted the companies are highly profitable and could spend some of those profits to expand their network in rural counties.

“Instead, you apply for federal and state grant funds and expand only into areas where there is ‘low hanging fruit’ of higher population densities leaving our rural residents, recreational areas and agri-businesses behind,” they said. “This further damages our rural economies.”

Godfrey and Johnson plan to go to Washington, D.C. next week to speak out against a lake level regulation plan that could cause significant erosion damage to the south shore. That plan was approved by the binational International Joint Commission and needs approval from the federal governments in the U.S. and Canada.

The two counties also will continue to speak out against unfunded mandates, programs approved by the state but paid for at the local level.

“Both of our counties have developed a new synergy that can only help us move forward,” said David Callard, Orleans County Legislature chairman.