WESTFIELD — A statewide group is calling foul on Westfield’s plans to build $11 million of high school sports fields using revenues from Whip City Fiber, some of which are generated outside Westfield.

A new stadium and two renovated fields on the Westfield High School campus would be paid for by a $1 million per year increase in payments in lieu of taxes from Westfield Gas & Electric, which runs the Whip City Fiber broadband internet utility in Westfield and several other towns. The ad campaign from Mass Priorities includes cable television spots and a billboard in West Springfield, which has contracted with Whip City Fiber to build and operate its broadband network.

Mass Priorities Policy Director Christopher Thrasher, of Westport, said “it is way outside the mandate of a municipal utility to be funding these ballfields in Westfield, especially on the backs of subscribers outside of Westfield. It really should give municipalities pause to partner with Whip City Fiber, if this is how funds from subscribers are going to be spent in the future.”

Westfield’s City Council has already voted 10-2 to endorse the project. It needs to take one more vote at an upcoming meeting for the project to be approved.

Thrasher said as municipal utility companies like Westfield Gas & Electric have started building and operating broadband internet services not just in their own communities, but in others, people are “up in arms” about subscriber fees being used for “pet projects that benefit only the few at the expense of the many.”

Asked if there is support among Whip City Fiber customers for this campaign, Thrasher said he is in contact with residents across Massachusetts and in West Springfield, where the campaign is particularly focused, with a billboard that went up this month on Route 5 and Interstate 91, but he declined to name any individuals.

Speaking at a WG&E event on May 15, West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt said the Mass Priorities advertisements are misleading, because West Springfield’s Town Council has already voted to establish a municipal light plant — a prerequisite to contracting with Whip City Fiber — and has no role to play in whether Westfield builds athletic fields.

He called cable companies like Charter and Comcast, the latter of which provides the only current broadband network in town, “faceless entities,” and said West Springfield residents are eager to have a competing option. The town is “overwhelmingly” in favor of Whip City Fiber, he said.

WG&E General Manager Thomas Flaherty said Whip City Fiber, a government-owned nonprofit which now serves 20 communities and is in the process of partnering with three others, has been successful in helping neighboring communities to build 1-gigabit municipal broadband networks, and in supporting the towns as their internet service provider, which he said is providing competition to for-profit companies like Charter and Comcast.

Flaherty said Whip City Fiber has run into this sort of campaign against town-owned broadband before. He said when Southwick was voting to establish a municipal light plant, postcards were sent to residents. Last year, another group went door-to-door in Hampden with information before that town took a vote.

He said he has not had any complaints from other communities about the athletic fields project, but has had questions about who is behind the ad campaign.

Asked if the campaign has corporate sponsors paying for the billboard and other ads, Thrasher said his group does not discuss its donors, and as a 501c4 nonprofit organization, “we don’t have any requirements to discuss donors.”

On May 16, the Westfield City Council tabled what would have been its final vote on the athletic fields proposal, but not for any reason related to Whip City Fiber. One of the councilors raised a question about whether one of the fields is covered by a conservation restriction. The council referred the matter to Westfield’s Conservation Commission and the city Law Department, and is expected to take its vote June 6.

amyporter@thewestfieldnews.com | + posts