At the March 20th City Council meeting, council voted to authorize the City Manager to enter into multiple license agreements with subsidiaries of AT&T. Council's hands were largely tied by legislation at the state level, but several members expressed their frustration with the service provider.
Why this issue matters: AT&T and its subsidiaries are laying new cable to bring hi-speed internet to Durham residents. This work has already been underway, and over 500 complaints have been raised and 7 work shutdowns have occurred since June 2015. Due to new state legislation, inspection fees are no longer charged to the utility provider though the providers do have to contribute to a general fund of which the City of Durham gets a portion, though not as much as the previous inspection fees.
What are elected officials had to say about it:
Charlie Reece requested that these be put on the business agenda because he had some concerns about AT&T service complaints (500+ since June 2015) and lobbying by AT&T and other utilities companies to the NC legislature last year that resulted in the elimination of permit fees that those companies had been paying until then. An AT&T representative was present to answer questions.
Schewel, followed by Reece and then Moffitt, expressed concern about the complaints, the legislation at the state level prohibiting permit fees (would taxpayers have to foot the bill for inspections related to new utilities now that these permit fees no longer exist?), and the fact that AT&T can pick and choose where high-speed internet will be made available throughout the city, potentially excluding low-income neighborhoods from those services. All 3 items eventually passed (7-0) with reservations given that not granting the licenses could result in litigation against the city. The City Attorney noted that AT&T would likely object and have grounds for litigation (discriminatory license granting if, for example, AT&T does not receive license but Google does).
Schewel - “I just want to tell you I think it’s wrong. I am disappointed in the utilities...I think it is unfair to taxpayers.” Additionally, Schewel commented:
- What information do we have about the number of times AT&T had to stop work or make changes because of complaints?
- Utilities inspections will cost the city $4 million over the next couple years, something that permit fees used to cover (2007-2016); with those fees prohibited by the state legislature, who will pay? Taxpayers?
- AT&T can pick and choose where they offer service, and they are unregulated/for profit. No guarantee that they will offer service to low-income neighborhoods. Taxpayers should not have to pay for the required utilities inspections. AT&T and Google are not the only utilities companies but still the primary drivers of current action in Durham.
Reece & Moffitt agreed with Schewel. Reece's move to pull these items from the consent agenda made the public discussion and questions possible.
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