Weakley County residents distraught over failed broadband resolution
By Amanda Mansfield
A special-called meeting of the Weakley County Commission was held Thursday night in the Dresden Middle School gymnasium. The only business on the agenda was a resolution to approve building a fiber internet infrastructure network in the county, which would give internet access to homes and businesses in rural Weakley County.
Representatives from WK&T Telecommunications, based in Mayfieldwere in attendance, as were several members of the rural community.
Ultimately, the resolution failed to pass with nine voting against it, six voting in favor, and three absent. The following County Commissioners voted “no”: Donnie Essary, David Hawkes, Larry Hudson, Eric Owen, Dale Overton, James Roy Pope, Greg Usery, Jack Vincent and James Westbrook.
The following County Commissioners voted “yes”: Roger Donaldson, Dennis Doster, Gary Eddings, Larry Taylor, Steven Totty and Beth VanCleave.
The following County Commissioners were absent: David Bell, Bobby Dunlap and Colton Nanney.
During discussion, Commissioner David Hawkes representing District 7, questioned the amount of money to be spent on the project. County Mayor Jake Bynum explained that the total estimated cost would be $26 million. A maximum of $10.5 million would be paid by Weakley County, and a minimum of $10.5 million would be paid by WK&T, with the remainder coming from federal, state and private funding.
Hawkes’ concern was that the county would spend $10.5 million but couldn’t be certain what percentage of households would be served. He questioned the audience at one point if they were willing to pay higher taxes for others to have internet. The vast majority of the audience was for the resolution.
Many citizens got up to speak and make an emotional plea to the commissioners to pass the resolution. One citizen referenced the unequal access to telemedicine and virtual education for their family members. Another citizen spoke about rural farmers and their need to access the internet.
Commissioner Dennis Doster representing District 8 agreed and said, “This isn’t just something nice to do, this is a need. Farmers today are sophisticated businessmen, and they need internet access.”
Another citizen got up to say that internet service was no longer a luxury, but a necessary utility, just like electricity and running water.
When asked about waiting for newer technology, such as 5G satellite service, Mayor Bynum stated, “Fiber is by far superior than anything existing or anything on the horizon.”
Commissioner Jack Vincent representing District 8 was concerned with access to cellphone service in the rural areas that also do not have access to internet service. Mayor Bynum explained that no willing partner has come forward. Hawkes then stated, “if we worked as hard to get cell service as we have to get this, we’d have it.”
Bynum explained the reasoning behind the push for fiber internet service was because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the push for working from home, federal money was becoming available for rural communities, such as rural Weakley County to receive this invaluable service.
Just after the vote, Commissioner James Roy Pope representing District 3 stated that he felt attacked by this special-called meeting. “I don’t think I’m the only Commissioner who feels a little overwhelmed and kind of ambushed tonight. For this to come up, it was a little quick for me,” he stated. Pope also questioned why this wasn’t brought up at the last Commission meeting. “We’ve spent nearly $4,000 tonight, getting everyone together. We spend a lot of money every year, and it’s not fair to come in and ambush us this way. This $10.5 million is a big number.”
Mayor Bynum closed by saying, “I’ve fought and fought for this, and at this point, I’m ready to lay it down.” He went on to say, “The issue is never dead, but there must be a conversation on how we move forward.”
Before adjournment, Commissioner Donaldson stood and excitedly stated, “I think we’ve done a great disservice tonight.”
In a request for more information, Donnie Essary representing District 9 stated, “The reason I voted against it at this time is that we, as a county, have spent $40,000 for a study to see how many people would sign on. As of yet, we have nothing from WK&T for that study. Now we have applied for two grants that have committed to match at $2 million each, with nothing for that match. I cannot, in good faith, keep spending more money with no promise of fiber at this time. Why does the county have to spend any money when WK&T will be getting the money each month for services? I feel that it would put a hardship on some citizens of the county for an increase in property taxes.”
In a similar statement, Hawkes replied, “I am not opposed to broadband. My problem is we’ve committed $4 million already and not one household is on broadband yet. And now, $10.5 million is being asked for. If after spending the first $2 million, we see about a 60 – 70 percent participation in broadband, I will gladly support and even make a motion to do so. I know many of you are upset, and I’m sure my explanation probably doesn’t satisfy you, but I feel my duty as a commissioner is to do what’s best for all Weakley Countians, and that includes guarding the waste of tax payer money.”
Commissioner Greg Usery representing District 3 stated, “I am for rural communities, and my decision was based upon [Thursday] night’s request. [It] was supposed to be a discussion that turned out to be an all-out debate. I do not know if WK&T is the best company to use, but I am for getting everyone in Weakley County fiber optics.”