The Haralson County Commission at a work session on Wednesday fielded complaints about the process in which the county entered into an agreement with iWispr, an internet provider.
The company entered into a lease agreement with the county to bring the infrastructure needed to provide residents in rural areas with access to the internet. The county will be providing $200,000 toward the project.
The issue was brought up at the commissioners’ last meeting two weeks ago by Kevin Boulton, who heads an internet provider based in Temple. Commissioner Jamie Brown Bennett asked that the commissioners add a discussion of the process to the work session agenda as the meeting began.
The process started with meetings of representatives of local municipalities, school systems, county staff among others, according to Greg Dewberry, a surveyor in the county. The need for internet accessibility throughout the county had been discussed off and on for years, but in July 2016, those involved decided they had to do something as soon as possible, Dewberry said.
Haralson County did not advertise for proposals, said Board Chairman Allen Poole. He had been directly contacting some of the larger companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon about expanding service in the county but with no success, he said. He knew that the county had to sweeten the deal to lure a company to the sparsely populated county, Poole said. A former Council voted to allocate $200,000 of special purpose local option sales tax proceeds toward internet infrastructure. Still, there was little interest, he said.
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“I remember vividly that you were given an opportunity right here in one of these meetings to sit down with Eric McDonald (a member of the development authority) and come back to us with a proposal,” Poole said to Boulton. “We didn’t hear from you or Eric or anybody. We were not going to sit stagnant.”
Dewberry ended up finding iWispr after searching the internet contacting companies he thought might be able to help the county. Calhoun-based iWispr was the only company who responded, even now, 18 months later, he said at the work session.
The company met with the Haralson County representatives, arranged for them to see their operation and provided them with a customer list so they could call them for reviews of iWispr’s service, Dewberry said.
County Clerk Alison Palmer said the process was uncharted territory for the county. If the county is going to purchase something for county government, it would go through a request for proposal process as part of its due diligence. However, in this case, the county was trying to entice a business to set up in the county. This is more akin to building a road for a business that needs access to a site in order to build there, she said.
“What the county did is join with their development authority who tries to bring a service into the county,” Palmer said. “There’s no procedure or anything in place for something like this through us.”
Boulton though said he did contact McDonald and he left cards with the commissioners during one of the work sessions after which he had explained how the county could bring internet access to churches where students could gather to do their homework using existing water towers. Why didn’t they call him? Boulton asked. He insisted that the investment to bring internet service to the rural areas of the county would not require taxpayer money.
“Was a consultant hired to determine the best plan for Haralson County’s internet structure for the next two, five or 10 years?” Boulton said. “I’m assuming that was not done even though I offered that free to you guys.”
Dewberry though said the county will not be responsible for the infrastructure and keeping it up to date.
“I think you’re reading too much into what the board’s responsibility was,” Dewberry said. “The board is not getting into the wireless internet business.”
The business decisions are up to the business, not the county, he said.The county provided an incentive to motivate iWispr to set up here. It’s up to iWispr to provide the service and keep the customers happy, Dewberry said.
Commissioner David Tarpley, who was still concerned about the process, said the county was going to have to move on with iWsipr. But he told Boulton that the county hasn’t cut him out of the business.
“Go ahead and do all you can and let the best company win,” Tarpley said.
Bennett said she just wanted some information about the process. Now that she’s heard that, she’s ready to move on.
In other business the commissioners:
-approved two zoning change requests, one on Buncombe-Waco Road and one on Old Bushmill Road, to allow operation of event venues. The commissioners voted in a special meeting called after a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. No one spoke against the changes.
-heard from representatives of the West Georgia Regional Library System that the system is in dire need of funds and is requesting the county pay a new fee schedule of $7,000 per library plus .20 per capita, a total of $26,886 to pay for administrative services the three county libraries receive from the system. The county currently pays $4,200 for courier services and $18,000 for operating expenses for the Buchanan Library. The $4,200 would cover a portion of the $26,886. Commissioners were concerned about coming up with the extra money after the budget had already been approved. Poole suggested the library managers, representatives of the cities, school systems and the county work together to figure out a way to pay the fees.