BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (October 8) — A resolution authorizing the complete build of a fiber-internet infrastructure network throughout the unincorporated areas of Weakley County was voted down during Thursday night’s special-called meeting of the Weakley County Commission, which was held in Dresden Middle School’s gymnasium.
Several of the approximately 60 taxpayers, composed mainly of citizens from the rural areas of the county, loudly voiced their opinions concerning obtaining countywide internet service. The vast majority of the audience spoke in favor of the project.
The resolution, authorizing West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative, Inc. (WK&T) to pursue all state and federal funding sources for the purpose of providing broadband access to the unserved areas outside the city limits of all municipalities located in Weakley County failed to receive a sufficient number of votes for passage, with 15 commissioners present – nine commissioners voted against it, six voted in favor of the project, and three commissioners were absent.
County commissioners voting “no” were Donnie Essary, David Hawks, Larry Hudson, Eric Owen, Dale Overton, James Roy Pope, Greg Usery, Jack Vincent and James Westbrook. Commissioners voting for the resolution were Roger Donaldson, Dennis Doster, Gary Eddings, Larry Taylor, Steven Totty, and Beth VanCleave. Commissioners David Bell, Bobby Dunlap and Colton Nanney were absent.
The resolution stipulates Weakley County’s maximum cost for the project would be $10.5 million, with payments beginning in the 2024-2025 fiscal year. WK&T would be responsible for providing a minimum of $10.5 million in matching funding, and possibly more. WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnstetter said he hoped to obtain $5 million in federal and state grant funding. These three revenue sources – $10.5 million from Weakley County, plus $10.5 million from WK&T, and $5 million in grant funding, amounts to $26 million, which is the total estimated cost of the project. In any case, Weakley County would not be obligated to pay more than the $10.5 million specified in the resolution.
The resolution would have funded Phase II of the installation of fiber internet cable to those areas of the county not already covered under Phase I.
The commission recently approved the first phase of the project, which is already under way. It covers residences and businesses along major highways and existing trunk lines in northern Weakley County, which has a higher population density than some of the more remote areas. Phase I is a $6 million project to be funded from three sources – Weakley County Government, WK&T and an Economic and Community Development Grant from the State of Tennessee, with each contributing $2 million.
A second grant application, requiring a local match of $2 million, which would provide internet service to additional rural areas, was also recently approved. However, had the resolution requiring a $10.5 million investment by the county been approved, the most recent $2 million grant application would have been dropped. This would equal a total indebtedness of $12.5 million.
Under Phase II, the total cost of the countywide project paid for through Weakley County, WK&T and grant funding is estimated to be $26 million.
During discussion, certain commissioners objected to the expense of the project.
District 7 Commissioner David Hawks said, “Until I know how many people are going to be served, I’m against it.” Additionally, he objected to the cost of the project.
When asked about his position during a phone interview Tuesday, October 13, Commissioner James Westbrook listed the reasons he felt he could not support the project at this time.
Commissioner Westbrook said, “I voted against it – not because I’m against fiber. I wish we had it.” However, he stated West Kentucky & Tennessee Coop CEO Trevor Bonnstetter reported, out of all the areas covered by the $6 million fiber project located in the northeast part of the county, only one household signed up for the service.
“We’re talking about $10.5 million, plus interest of one or two million dollars over 10 years, added to the $2 million the county has already approved, for a total of $12.5 million. And there’s no way to do that without raising taxes. You can’t spend that much money without it coming from somewhere,” Westbrook shared.
Commissioner Westbrook stated everything County Mayor Bynum said about the debt service being in good shape was correct. “But within the next 10 years, we’re probably going to need a new high school in Dresden and a middle school in Martin, which are both approximately 50 years old. We’ve been throwing good money after bad for years, trying to put it off and make improvements. Those are the round schools with the flat roofs that weren’t very well thought out when they were built 50 years ago.
“Just because we’ll pay off the school note in the next five years, doesn’t mean we’ll have all that money to spend, because we’ll have more schools to pay for,” he added.
Commissioner Westbrook also mentioned, with the new 5G satellite technology being developed, which would be much cheaper, it might make fiber cable obsolete in a few years.
However, County Mayor Jake Bynum stated the annual payments should not be a problem, since the note for the school renovation project, which amounts to approximately $1 million per year, would be paid off about the time the first payment for the internet fiber would become due. Although the loan for the internet project would be for a larger amount, the payments would be about the same, since it would be spread out over a 10-to-15 year period. The county mayor explained WK&T would not bill the county until the entire system is built, which is estimated to be during the 2024-2025 fiscal year.
“While it certainly is a lot of money, it’s far less than what we were originally talking about five years ago,” Mayor Bynum said. “We worked tirelessly to try to get to a position where we thought it was a feasible project, and presented that in a very understandable, responsible way. I think, most importantly, the commission saw there is a need by the participation in the meeting. So, it’s really disheartening we were unable to get a positive vote.”
Mayor Bynum said, “While we don’t know how many people will take advantage of it, I do know we get hundreds of calls every year regarding the need for internet.”
The resolution notes the need for accessibility to reliable, high-speed internet is growing daily and improved
broadband availability is necessary for all citizens with respect to education, health care, communication, interactions with government, farming and business operations, commerce, entertainment, and future uses yet to be developed.
These needs were echoed by the six commissioners voting in favor of the resolution.
Commissioner Dennis Doster argued high-speed internet fiber service is not a luxury, but a need.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson addressed the county’s declining population, saying, high-speed internet is needed to improve the possibility of recruiting commercial development and job prospects “for our children and grandchildren. This is important, if we are to move forward.”
Following the meeting, Mayor Bynum said, “We’re certainly disappointed with the outcome, with the commission voting down the resolution to move forward. I think we’re most disappointed for the citizens of Weakley County in the rural areas. We have made an argument time and time again for the need of access to broadband. That need has been spotlighted the past several months with the pandemic.
“So, what we’ve essentially done is disenfranchise an entire group of citizens, by not providing them with options to a much-needed infrastructure and utility,” Mayor Bynum said. “I think part of the issue is we have commissioners who don’t understand the need and demand for the service, and are looking at it through one lens only.”
County Commissioner Gary Eddings, who represents District 4 and is a member of the fiber research committee, composed of Eddings, Donaldson, Doster, Bell and County Mayor Bynum, said, “We’re going to continue trying to get fiber throughout the county for everyone.”