BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (May 16) — The Weakley County Commission approved several budget resolutions, during Monday night’s regularly-scheduled meeting, which was held in the conference room at the Weakley County Courthouse. One of the main topics for discussion involved a resolution funding the installation of high-speed broadband internet service at various Weakley County locations as part of a grant agreement.
A resolution authorizing budget amendments to the American Recovery Plan Act Fund for the current fiscal year was unanimously approved with 17 commissioners voting in favor of the action and one being absent. The resolution deals with funding the broadband project.
In order to understand the discussion among commissioners, it is necessary to list the four phases of the broadband project, outlined by West Kentucky and Tennessee cooperative representatives, as follows:
- Phase I – Involves installing approximately 138 miles of fiber cable, along mostly rural highways, which will provide service to an estimated 1,383 customers.
It includes fiber internet installation in the Sharon and Sidonia areas, as well as a subdivision on Greenfield Highway 54, and Adams Road residences. This represents a large, but sparsely populated area.
The engineering and installation are complete, and these residents are signing up for high-speed internet service with WK&T.
The project, costing $6 million, is funded from three sources – an Economic and Community Development grant from the State of Tennessee, WK&T, and Weakley County Government, with each contributing $2 million.
- Phase II – The installation of fiber cable is almost complete in the Jewell Store Road and Palmersville areas, as well as portions of Latham along Highway 190. If all goes according to plan, residents in the vicinity of Jewell Store Road should be able to sign up for internet service with WK&T by the end of May, and those in the Palmersville area should have access to the internet within two months. The $6 million project is funded by a $2 million ECD grant provided by the State of Tennessee, $2 million provided by WK&T, and $2 million from Weakley County Government.
- Phase III – The installation of high-speed internet service in the Pillowville area, between Greenfield and McKenzie, will be paid for by a $3.3 million federal grant that provides 100 percent funding and requires no local dollars. The project is currently in the engineering phase and could take up to three years to complete. So far, no money has been received for Phase III.
- Phase IV – This project, which has not yet been awarded, would provide high-speed internet to 2,250 households, located in areas eligible for state grant funding throughout the county. This includes locations not covered in Phase I, Phase II or Phase III. A map showing where these areas are located is not available, because the project is still in the design phase. The $17.6 million project would be funded by $2.5 million from WK&T, $2.5 million provided by Weakley County Government, and the remaining costs by an ECD grant from the State of Tennessee.
During discussion, Commissioner David Hawks stated, although he’s going to vote to support the broadband project, he feels like there are some things that need to be mentioned.
Hawks said, “We know inflation has hit Weakley County, and it’s hit everywhere. We don’t know what inflation is going to look like. It’s probably going to be worse this year, and we’re about to spend $6 million. Some have said it’s not going to cost anything. I disagree. That’s $6 million that could have been spent somewhere else. But we’re so far into this, I think we pretty well have our hands tied and have got to attempt to complete the project.”
Speaking of Phase I of the broadband project, Hawks said, “We were told it would hook up approximately 1,350 households. Presently, we have approximately 450 people hooked up. If we take just the $2 million out of the $6 million that we put in, that’s $4,444 per house. If we take the $6 million and divide it by 450, that’s approximately $15,000 per house. That is very expensive.”
Hawks stated Weakley County Municipal Electric System could provide broadband service for a lot less than $6 million, providing they have a separate account.
According to Hawks, Gibson County Electric is operating broadband in Obion County, as well as Fulton and Hickman counties in Kentucky, and it’s not costing the taxpayers a penny. “We were told they run it here because we’re so rural. How can you get more rural than Hickman and Fulton counties, when they don’t have more than 9,000 people in each one of them.
“When those folks pay a broadband fee, it’s going to Weakley County Electric. I think we moved too fast and now, we’re biting the bullet for it. We should have went with Weakley County Municipal Electric, so when the people of Weakley County pay their fees it would go to WCMES. We have a bad habit of speeding things along and not thinking through them,” Hawks said.
“When we pass this, don’t be surprised what happens. The state has some money in the budget for broadband, but if we already have it, we’re not going to get it.
“We spent some money here that I think should have been spent somewhere else.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson, who chairs the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee, responded by saying, “You mentioned WCMES, we made a motion to do a study very early on in this process, and they said there was no way they could do it. So, we moved past that. It didn’t work out with WCMES to do that, so we moved onto this. Between Phases I, II and III, in the Dukedom grant and the Pillowville grant, we’ve invested somewhere around $18 million, and maybe more. The cost to the taxpayers for that has been about $40,000 for the study we did upfront. The rest of it is grants.”
Donaldson stated the taxpayers have not been out for any additional money for the project, thus far. “Right now, the state says it’s going to kick in another $100 million. But, what the state wants to see, it told us at our last meeting, they want to see counties that are making an effort to do something – to move forward. So, that’s what we think we have done. We think we have made that effort, which looks good. When they start awarding grants, they want to see what you have done. They don’t want to just come in and say, ‘Hey! Here’s the money,’ they want to see that you’re putting an effort forward to get this done.”
Donaldson stated the federal government is going to provide $65 million for broadband projects in Tennessee. “Of course, we’re in contact with the congressmen about this. They also say they made a pact with several providers to do this for $30 per month per consumer. They also say, for those people who are at the poverty level, the government will pay the $30 per month fee for them. So, basically, we can get broadband to low-income people for nothing. So, we made an effort.”
Regarding the inability of some households to get broadband internet service, Donaldson explained the grant limits providing the service to those within the areas approved to be covered by the grant. If a broadband provider goes outside of these designated areas, it could violate the conditions of the grant funding and result in grant funding being withheld.
“That’s why someone on one side of the street can get it and those on the other side cannot,” Donaldson said. He stated neither he nor his daughter can get it. “Is that fair? Well, we hope by the time we’re finished everybody will have it. Like Commissioner Dennis Doster said, ‘Somebody’s got to be first and somebody’s got to be last,’ Donaldson said.
“We hope with all of the grants coming down that we’ll be looked at favorably. We may be able to do this without any cost to the county,” Donaldson said. He noted Weakley County is obligated to pay $2 million for its portion of the $6 million, with the state paying $2 million and WK&T paying $2 million. He stated the county can’t renege on its obligations.
“In the beginning, we had a plan to provide broadband to every person in the county, but we would be paying half of that,” Donaldson said. “It was voted down. So, we can’t go that route. Now, we have to step back and we take a bite at a time. And, hopefully, by the time we get to the end of this, our goal is to provide every person in Weakley County with high-speed broadband.”
“Mr. Hawks, if you’d like to join the Fiber Committee, we would more than welcome your ideas,” Donaldson said. “If you think that we’re doing wrong, or you could do better, or you could advise us of a better way of doing this, please come to our meetings and please vote. We’ll take your advice on all of this.”
Hawks replied, “I am not accusing this committee of doing anything wrong. I think that you all have worked hard and spent a lot of hours. I think you have attempted to get broadband. I did vote for that at that time.” However, Hawks mentioned he thinks he and other members of the commission moved a little too fast. “We’re in this and we’re going to finish it. It’s going to take more time and more money, but we will finish it.”
Hawks said that he is tired of getting calls from people who can’t get broadband, when it’s being installed across the street from them. “They ask, ‘when can I get it’ and I have to say that I don’t know,” Hawks said. “And their tax money is going for this. I’m tired of not being able to give them an answer. In four years from now, they still might not get it. I hope they are. We’ve created a Pandora’s Box when some can get it and some can’t. The people of Gleason and Sharon are taxpayers, but they have Charter and they can’t get it.”
Hawks stated it’s hard for him to understand why the county can’t hook them up, when the fiber line is running through their yard. He questioned if this could be done, providing none of the grant money is spent to install it.
“It’s nothing against you all personally,” Hawks said. “I think you’ve done a good job. I’m going to try to get more involved and be present for Fiber Committee meetings. And I did vote for it (in the past) and I’m going to vote for this (resolution) tonight, because we’ve got to finish the project.”
Commissioner Westbrook remarked he was not speaking for or against the resolution, but he wished to clarify something. He stated WCMES states it’s not a matter of not wanting to cooperate. It’s a matter of feasibility.
Weakley County officials have previously voiced their support for installing countywide high-speed broadband internet service. One of those officials is Director of Weakley County Schools Randy Frazier, who stated the infrastructure is not currently in place for virtual learning to be implemented countywide, should schools be closed again to in-person learning, due to COVID-19 or for some other reason.
The goal of the countywide broadband high-speed internet project is to make sure that education, health care, economic development, and quality of life in rural areas, will no longer be negatively impacted by the lack of fiber infrastructure.