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North Florida Broadband Authority: Gilchrist County becomes the eighth county to pull out. "I don't like the way the NFBA does its business," Com. D. Ray Harrison Jr.

Gilchrist County Commission: Left to right, Kenrick Thomas, D. Ray Harrison Jr., Chair Sharon Langford, John Thomas, Todd Gray

Chairwoman Sharon Langford gave everyone their chance to be heard.

GILCHRIST COUNTY, FL – At 4:30 pm yesterday afternoon, Gilchrist County Commission Chairwoman Sharon Langford announced that there was a “time certain” item published on the agenda, “This is the NFBA discussion... We’ve been talking about this." Thirty minutes later, Gilchrist County joined the seven North Central Florida Counties and one City that have now taken exception to both the Federal Government's oversight and the home grown mismanagement of the NFBA and voted with their feet to pull out, adding the cities of Trenton and Starke, which refused to join or donate free tower space. That makes 50 popularly elected public officials who have, without descent, given the official thumbs down on the $30,000,000 NFBA.

Chairwoman Langford began, "I want the Commission to know that at this time there have been seven North Central Florida Counties that have pulled out... Everybody knows that things have been happening. There have been things going on and that is why we have it for a time certain."

Gilchrist County is the home of the NFBA Board Chairman and former Gilchrist County Commission Chairman Tommy Langford (no relation).

NFBA General Manager Richelle Sucara did not respond to a request for comments.

Commissioner D. Ray Harrison Jr. began the conversation recalling the earlier meeting with the NFBA in Gilchrist County, “Their Executive Director came to a meeting and some of you who were here then will remember their answers were very, very poor and evasive and how heavy handed their administrative salaries were.”

Com. Harrison said he spoke with a former NFBA Board member from another county and there were concerns that the NFBA administrators were making decisions without the Board’s knowledge.

Vice Chair D. Ray Harrison didn't like what he saw or what he heard regarding the NFBA.

Com. Harrison continued, "That concerns me, particularly with stuff the Board should be involved in. I’ve heard if we opt out that doesn’t put a stop to the North Florida Broadband. There are enough issues in my mind about their operations... They don’t sound very sustainable. There’s no gray area to me. I’m ready to opt out.”

The Gilchrist County Commission had previously voted, as other counties had done, to not allow the free use of its towers for the installation of equipment that was financed by the federal government and then given to private vendors to use free of charge. Gilchrist County had proposed charging the NFBA half the going rate for tower space.

Commissioner Harrison explained that the NFBA Executive Director (Richelle Sucara) turned it down on the spot. Commissioner Harrison said, “She could have an opinion, but she wasn’t going to accept that.” Commissioner Harrison thought she should have brought the proposal back to the NFBA Board.

Commissioner Harrison concluded his opening remarks. “I don’t think they are fulfilling the role they were originally set up to be... Another issue that was brought up by the gentleman I talked to was that SVIC (the last mile provider) wasn’t financially stable enough to buy all the equipment it takes to buy and that Broadband (NFBA) was furnishing that equipment for some kind of a sweetheart deal to get paid back by whatever, but that is not their role.”

The General Council for the NFBA, Jennifer Springfield, has denied public record requests for the agreement between SVIC and the “deal” Commissioner Harrison mentioned claiming it was a “trade secret” and that it didn't exist.

Chairwoman Langford mentioned, “This was taxpayer money.”

Commissioner Harrison then added that he understood that the NFBA General Manager went back to the federal government to get an extension to the grant and never consulted with the NFBA Board of Directors before she approved the terms of the extension.

"I don't want to do business with people like that."

Commissioner Harrison said, “I don’t want to do business with people like that.”

Chairwomen Langford said, “Me either.”

The Gilchrist County Attorney added that if the County drops out of the NFBA that would not mean that they could not come in and negotiate for the use of the county’s towers.

Chairwoman Langford, “That’s fine, but they wanted us to give them free tower space. I am not for giving them free tower space when they turn around and the citizens of Gilchrist County have to pay for it.”

Commissioner Harrison explained that at first he was in favor of giving the NFBA free tower space because he wanted the underserved areas of Gilchrist County to be served and he was willing to donate the county space on the towers for this to happen.

Commissioner Harrison then said, “Because of the other issues I am hearing about, I make a motion that we opt out.”

Commissioner John Thomas

Commissioner John Thomas seconded the motion for discussion.

Chairwoman Langford said, “I don’t want to be part of something that is being investigated. There is waste; there’s fraud; there’s abuse and I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Chairwoman Langford brought up that the NFBA had an incorrect email address for her and that she was not receiving any information from the NFBA.

Chairwoman Langford asked the Gilchrist County Commissioners if they received any updates or information from the NFBA. None of them had.

Former County Attorney John McPherson came to the microphone and was asked by Commissioner Gray for insight into the benefits and downside of being a member of the NFBA.

Attorney McPherson said, “I don’t think they have done a good job about keeping the various governments informed about what they are doing... My understanding is that they have created the middle mile... Now that the $30,000,000 is all spent it is a little less clear what the benefit is of staying in.”

There was a discussion which tried to determine what would be the result of the demise of the NFBA. Attorney McPherson said his understanding was that the middle mile facilities would stay in place and private companies would be able to take advantage of it.

The NFBA will require by various estimates hundreds of thousands of dollars a month to finance and maintain the NFBA’s middle mile network.

In a report presented to the Federal Government by the NFBA for the last quarter of 2012, the NFBA reported $2,078 of income since the beginning of the grant in 2010.

The Tea Party

Tea Party President Charlie Perez waited patiently for his chance to be heard.

Charlie Perez, President of the Gilchrist County Tea Party, came to the microphone and took up the cause of the NFBA. He claimed that the taxpayers paid $30,000,000 for the equipment; that he was representing the taxpayers; that he wanted broadband service at his house and the NFBA was the only way he was going to get it; and that he would have opposed the grant in the beginning, but he didn’t.

It was brought out that someone was renting space on a radio station tower to broadcast the NFBA signal. It was not clear if it was the NFBA or someone else. One of the commissioners asked why it was ok for rent to be paid to the owners of that tower, but not to the county. There was no answer.

Mr. Perez said that the only people that can’t get the service are the people that paid for it, the taxpayers and that he wanted a work shop.

Commissioner John Thomas told Mr. Perez that the agenda said there was going to be a discussion at a “time certain” about the North Florida Broadband Authority.

The Tea Party's Perez apparently was the only one who heard from the NFBA Chairman, Tommy Langford.

Mr. Perez said, “I have an email from him. I told him it was on the agenda and he said, ‘”No, we postponed it.’”

Chairwoman Langford said that the NFBA Chairman was not a Gilchrist County commissioner and that he couldn’t postpone anything on the Gilchrist County agenda.

There was more discussion and confusion regarding the purpose the of the NFBA visit to Gilchrist County, most of which appeared to be brought on by the NFBA’s Langford.

Resident Richard Esseck reflected the thoughts of many throughout the history of the NFBA.

Citizen Richard Esseck (fn1) came to the microphone at the invitation of the Chairwoman, who asked if anyone else would like to address the issue before the vote. Mr. Essex told the Commission that he would not need five minutes.

Mr. Esseck said, “You talk about competition. If someone wants to come in here and they think it’s worthwhile, they will. From what I see right now, the North Florida Broadband -- they’re not doin nothin. The taxpayer is not getting anything.”

Chairwoman Langford asked again for comments from the citizens. Seeing none she said, “We’ll vote and we’re talked out.”

The vote was unanimous. Gilchrist County became the eighth county to withdraw from the Obama stimulus funded North Florida Broadband Authority.

Epilogue – The Federal Government will not listen

After the vote the County Manager advised the Commission that the NFBA had requested to have its monthly board meeting at the Gilchrist County Emergency Operations Center. The meeting was scheduled for March 13th.

The NFBA web site states the following: Board of Directors meetings are held on the second Wednesday of every month at 10:00 am at the following location:  Lake City Council Chambers, Lake City, Florida.

Last week, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Larry Strickling, who is in charge of those who are in charge at the NTIA, told the House Commerce Committee that the BTOP projects were open and transparent and that he expected the NFBA to succeed and have enough revenue to support itself.

An interesting remark in light of the fact that the NFBA can’t, or intentionally doesn't want to go by its own meeting schedule; refuses to keep the press advised of its agendas, meetings and times; and intentionally keeps its own board out of the loop.

Eight North Central Florida Counties and one city have now taken exception to both the Federal Government's oversight and the home grown mismanagement of the NFBA and voted with their feet to pull out, adding the cities of Trenton and Starke, which refused to join or donate free tower space. That makes 50 popularly elected public officials who have, without descent, given the official thumbs down on the $30,000,000 NFBA.

Still, the Federal Government will not listen.

(fn1) Correction: Citizen Richard Esseck's name was misspelled in the original article

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