City commissioners like the idea of making the Internet more available to Lawrence youth, but a majority said it was unlikely they would enter a unique financial partnership with Lawrence Freenet to do so.
"I think there is a lot of risk there," Commissioner Rob Chestnut said of a proposal by Freenet that would require the city to financially guarantee a $4.9 million private loan for the nonprofit Internet company.
In exchange for the financial backing, Freenet leaders said the company would start a new program to provide free, wireless Internet service to every Lawrence child under 18.
But Mayor Sue Hack, Commissioner Mike Amyx and Chestnut said the loan guarantee represented too big of a risk for city government to take. They also said they had questions about whether the project would be unfair to for-profit Internet providers in the community - such as Sunflower Broadband, which is owned by The World Company, which also publishes the Journal-World.
Instead, commissioners said they wanted leaders of Sunflower Broadband, Freenet and city staff members to meet on ways that Internet access could be more available to Lawrence students, low income families and others who have difficulty accessing the service.
"In a perfect world, I would like for everyone to come together and figure out a way to close that gap for people in Lawrence," Hack said. "It can be a great economic development tool, but more than that it can be a great asset for the entire community."
City Manager David Corliss told commissioners he thought state law likely would prohibit the city from backing a private loan for a business, but said there may be other ways the city could help.
Amyx said he was skeptical of claims that the Freenet proposal would be revenue-neutral for the city and reminded commissioners that the city was facing tough budget times.
"It was only a few months ago that we were talking about reducing expenditures to outside agencies, talking about whether we had money to keep operating the T, and debating whether we could afford to give raises to city employees," Amyx said of last year's budget process.
Commissioners Mike Dever and Boog Highberger expressed the most support for the Freenet plan but stopped short of saying they would fully endorse it. But Highberger said he was open to the idea of spending city money on improving Internet access.
Commissioners heard public support for the plan from leaders of the O'Connell Youth Ranch, Kansas Research and Education Network, and a parents group at Central Junior High School.
Commissioners also heard from leaders of The World Company, who urged city commissioners to treat all Internet service providers in the community equally.
"This really is a question of what is the best use of municipal funds," said Patrick Knorr, chief operating officer for The World Company and general manager for Sunflower Broadband.
Corliss said he would bring back a status report on the issue to commissioners in early March.