Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Florida News

North Florida Broadband Authority: Gilchrist County pulls the plug on the NFBA in another unanimous vote

In spite of massive lobbying by the Federal Government, Gilchrist County became the 8th of 14 counties to officially pull out of the NFBA. The project, which was extended 60 days in order to spend down the $30,000,000 stimulus grant, is due to run out of money on March 31st.

NTIA BTOP Director Tony Wilhelm (left) and NFBA Chairman Tommy Langford address the Gilchrist County Commission.

GILCHRIST COUNTY, FL – The North Florida Broadband Authority/Fed road show moved to the Gilchrist County seat for the 4:45 pm time certain discussion of the NFBA. The seven member Federal contingent was led by BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunity Program) Director Tony Wilhelm. The seven member NFBA contingent was led by NFBA Chairman Tommy Langford. The purpose was to convince the Gilchrist County Commission not to finalize their first vote to withdraw from the NFBA.

Former Gilchrist County Commissioner and current NFBA Chairman Tommy Langford told his former county commission, "I can find nothing but positive for you to remain in the North Florida Broadband Authority."

Every county, including the City of Perry that has withdrawn from the NFBA has complained about high salaries, the lack of transparency, and the lack of information.

The rush to the exits began concurrently with the hiring of General Manager Sucara; Project Manager Donny Lort; and the installation of Tommy Langford as Chairman of the NFBA.

The project has been directly overseen by two project managers at the NTIA, Doug Kinkoph and Chris Holt.

The NFBA's Langford went through a list of concerns that he was now willing to address.

Commissioner D. Ray Harrison, Jr. told Mr. Langford, "It's sort of like the fox is out of the henhouse and now there is a major concern."

Mr. Langford suggested that the County Commission not "dwell in the past."

Commissioner John Thomas asked Mr. Langford, "How much of the $30,000,000 has been spent?"

Mr. Langford didn't know, but thought it was about $28,000,000.

According to reports filed with the Federal Government, on December 31, 2012, the NFBA had spent $28,333,007. The NFBA has projected spending $30,142,676 by the end of the first quarter of 2013. If they do they will have spent down the grant and be out of money in ten days.

Commissioner John Thomas followed up, "Is there some document that says what the $28 million has been spent for?"

Mr. Langford said there was and when Commissioner Thomas asked for a copy, Mr. Langford answered, "Let me introduce you to Mr. Tony Wilhelm. He's from the NTIA. He'll speak to that. He'll answer your questions."

The NTIA's Wilhelm came to Gilchrist County with a pitch

BTOP Director Tony Wilhelm

The NTIA's Wilhelm introduced himself to the Commissioners. "I'm here to talk about how important this is for your community. What I'm hearing is there are a lot of questions about the project. From where I stand I'd like to be able to answer those questions satisfactorily to you as a member of the NFBA. If you aren't a member anymore it's harder to have that dialogue... We can address the salary issues. Why don't we have that discussion with you being a member? You can be a part of trying to reform the network. That's my pitch... This is my first trip down here since it was brought to light that there were other counties that have dropped out. I think there is a lot of misinformation."

The NTIA's Wilhelm didn't address the money issues.

Commissioner John Thomas: What's the benefit?

Commissioner John Thomas told Director Wilhelm that he lived way out in the boondocks, which he said was most of Gilchrist County.  He wanted to know when he was going to get internet through the NFBA and if he wasn't going to get internet service he asked, "Then what benefit is it to most of Gilchrist County?"

A member of the County staff volunteered that he heard that if Gilchrist County drops out of the NFBA that is not going to prevent the Broadband Authority from serving people in Gilchrist County.

Director Wilhelm said that was his understanding. "I implore you guys to stay in. I think we can work through the issues. I'll be happy to come back down and answer all your questions."

It was pointed out to the Commission that on November 1, 2012, NFBA General Manager Sucara had given $15,000 raises, along with $1200 a month travel stipends to two employees, Donny Lort and Dale Richards and that no mention of this was ever given to the NFBA Board.

Cheryl Rehberg, the alternate NFBA Board member from Madison County came before the Commission and said, "I don't know that all the details of administration have to come before the board... the board is informed."

County Commission Chairwoman Langford addressed Ms. Rehberg, "I have a question for you. You said the board approves the budget. These raises for example, did you all approve this?

Ms. Rehberg began to answer, "The administrator of the organization is entrusted (Commissioner Harrison cut her off).

"This says the general manager forgot to relay the information. She did these raises. Is that the way they operate?

Ms. Rehberg told the Commission, "I don't get into the day to day operations."

Two former NFBA engineers

Engineer Jim Selby

Engineer Jim Selby submitted the design that helped secure the grant in 2009. According to Mr. Selby, if the NFBA would have stuck with it, the network would have been up and running by mid 2010 and generating income as it was continuing to be built out.

Mr. Selby told the Commission that at one time the NFBA did produce budgets, but it stopped.

Commissioner John Thomas asked, "At one time? Well, doesn't that sound fishy to you?"

Mr. Selby, "Absolutely."

Commissioner John Thomas, "I smell something here."

Mr. Selby concluded, "All these other counties, they are smart people like yourselves. They are asking the right questions. They are pulling out. It just makes sense. As an expert in this business I would not be involved in this if I were you guys."

Rapid System's Dustin Jurman

Dustin Jurman, CEO of Rapid Systems, a nationally known wireless internet service provider and engineering firm explained that his company was the third engineering firm involved in the project and were removed without cause.

Mr. Jurman said that his company recently built a successful wireless broadband network that serves everyone in Hardee County. He told the Commission that his company cooperated with the federal investigation of the NFBA. He said that Rapid Systems alerted board members that contractors were not being paid.

Mr. Jurman continued, "The North Florida Broadband Authority financed the building of four towers in violation of the federal grant. This wasn't supposed to be done. Recently the NFBA upgraded the network for phantom customers that don't exist."

In Gilchrist County everyone gets a chance to speak

Resident Ray Rauscher



Resident Ray Rauscher told the Commission, "I haven't heard any resident that has gotten this and it is a wonderful situation. I'm against it... I'd be real careful where this board is going to go."




Resident Richard Esseck


Resident Richard Esseck told the Commission, "I hear the fantastic salaries these people pay - wow. I have to scrimp and save to pay my taxes and these people are getting all this kind of money for salaries and expenses. Maybe you should just dissolve this authority and start all over again."



NFBA General Manager Sucara Gets One More Bite of the Apple

Before the resolution came up for a vote, GM Sucara was invited to the microphone.

GM Sucara explained that when she worked for Alachua County her salary was "in the ballpark" of what she was currently making ($150k + benefits)

"We work terribly hard and have a very small staff at the NFBA," she said.

Chairwoman Langford asked, "How many did you oversee when you worked for Alachua County?"

GM Sucara responded, "I oversaw quite a few people. I'm just happy" (Chairwoman Langford cut her off)

Chairwoman Langford asked, "5 - 10 – 15?"

GM Sucara, "Anywhere ranging from 2000 down to just a couple."

Chairwoman Langford, "How many do you oversee with broadband?"

GM Sucara, "Currently I'm overseeing a surface territory 9150 sq miles..."

Chairwoman Langford pressed on, "How many people do you oversee now?"

GM Sucara, "At this point -- directly -- 5 employees"

After a brief discussions about tower rentals; special "rewards" for Putman County for "their partnership with us;" and remarks from Commissioner Harrison explaining his displeasure about remarks he heard regarding the intelligence of the county's commissioners, the Gilchrist County Commission voted once again to withdraw from the NFBA.

The County Attorney read the resolution and the vote was identical to the first one two weeks ago. The Gilchrist County Commission unanimously approved pulling out of the NFBA again.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.


stories are here


Commissioner D. Ray Jarrison Jr.:

I've asked a lot of questions and I haven't generated any new questions on my own. I have talked to other counties and other board members. It frustrates me a little bit that every time I bring up something that a former board member or another County that has opted out -- it seems the stock answer is -- you can't pay any attention to that, they're just disgruntled. I just don't believe that as many as have dropped out, that it's just being disgruntled. There is a reason -- there is a basis for them doing that...

I am not satisfied with the type of answers we get and there is more to us than just saying -- you're just hearing from somebody that's disgruntled and don't pay any attention to that. Well I have paid attention to it... It disturbs me.

I just expressed that to the chairman of the Broadband that some of your supporters are going to other counties and making statements that like -- some of our commissioners aren't smart enough to understand this.

If I'm one of them that they're talking about, I don't appreciate that.