Utility awaiting St. Lucie County’s sign-off on the agreement so crews can begin laying fiber optic cable

FORT PIERCE – The members of the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority voted more than a month ago to accept the financial memorandum of understanding between the FPUA, Alleghany Franciscan Ministries, the City of Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County to begin the $1.25 million Lincoln Park Broadband Initiative but are still waiting on the latter municipality to sign off on the agreement.

The county’s $50,000 contribution temporarily holding up the deal pales in comparison to the $600,000 promised by the FPUA, $400,000 from AFM and $200,000 from the City of Fort Pierce, but FPUA’s Utility Support Services Director Javier Cisneros said July 31 the project was in limbo until the County Commission approves its participation in the MOU. During the July 2 FPUA meeting, Risk Program Manager Joshua Gang reminded Authority members that staff had provided them an in-depth presentation of the initiative last April and so only gave them a brief overview.

“The project includes the installation of high-speed fiber loop and wireless connectivity in the Lincoln Park area bordered by Avenue D to the north, Orange Avenue to the south, 7th Street to the east and 25th Street to the west,” he said. “The project’s a phased development over three years: Phase 1 is the installation of the fiber loop; Phase 2 is the business wireless, which goes in the corridor around that area; and Phase 3 is bringing the residential wireless infill in that area.”

Mr. Gang told the FPUA that both the Fort Pierce Commission and the AFM Board had already signed off on the MOU.

“It was approved by the city at the June 17 City Commission meeting, and Alleghany Franciscan Ministries’ board approved it last week,” he added. “We expect the county to approve it at an upcoming meeting, and once that’s done, all four parties will have signed, and the project will be ready to go.”

County Communications Division Director Erick Gill said July 31 the County Commission’s approval should happen within the next couple of weeks, but it was not yet written in stone.

“Human Resources has an agenda item for the MOU on the Aug. 13 Board of County Commissioners agenda,” he said. “The backup is still in draft form.”

During the latest FPUA discussion, Board Member Charlie Frank Matthews wanted to know if any other cities had already implemented a similar broadband initiative.

“Are there any other leading cities on this particular project?” he asked. “Do any other cities have one up and running?”

Utilities Director John Tompeck highlighted the success of a specific Tennessee project and emphasized the fact FPUA would own all the infrastructure once the project is completed.

“We did our initial review of some of the smart city initiatives, and one of the ones we looked at was Chattanooga, and there were a few others that have started this kind of smart neighborhood/smart city initiative and it’s been very successful,” he explained. “You know we were approached by the Lincoln Park Revitalization Group and we thought that this initiative – based on the participation of all the members – was a real positive thing to do as a group. So that’s why we’re pursuing it, and we think it’s going to be a great project.”

Former FPUA member Mike Perri was the only member of the public to speak out on the proposed memorandum, expressing concerns about the planned $600,000 investment in the initiative and quoting from a 2017 bond attorney’s letter stating that the Utilities’ funds could “only be spent on electric, gas, water and wastewater.”

“The Internet is not a utility, cable TV is not a utility and surveillance cameras are not a utility,” he said, referring to the potential use of Police Department cameras through the new broadband network. “I don’t know what the ramifications would be if the bondholders looked upon this move as unfavorable. Could they call the bonds, could they raise rates, could they hinder acquiring new bonds as needed? Any one of these scenarios could be very costly to the Utility and the ratepayers. The prudent action may be to table this item and ask the bond attorneys for an opinion in this matter.”

Shortly before the unanimous vote on the MOU, Board member Glynda Cavalcanti addressed some of Mr. Perri’s remarks and asked for clarification from the FPUA director.

“My understanding is that the cable is a utility,” she said. “I mean there’s a utility tax as I understand it on these services that are given to us, and we are in the business of supplying the FPUA.net to businesses, correct?”

“Right,” Mr. Tompeck responded, “this is one of our utility businesses, and it’s one that the revenue is shared with the city based on the distribution. We did evaluate, and we talked to the Council that agreed that this was in accordance with our charter in terms of using our money for utility persons. So that’s why we feel comfortable going ahead with this.”

Even so, Ms. Cavalcanti sought a little more affirmation before casting her hat in the ring with her fellow FPUA members.

“Right, and it may not be as traditional as water or sewer… but this is a newer utility, which is internet supply utility, correct?”

“Correct,” Mr. Tompeck answered.

Authority Member and Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson said she believed the Lincoln Park Broadband Initiative to be in the city’s best interests.

“I consider this economic development as part of helping grow our FPUA.net and our city,” she said.

FPUA Chairman Darryl Thomas-Bey concurred.

“I think it’s a great program, and I think we talked about expanding the business potential for that area in terms of economic development,” he said. “We also talked about it being like a test situation where we can eventually make the entire city a smart city in terms of the results that we get from what we do in that area, so I think it’s a great program.”

The Board subsequently voted unanimously to approve the MOU.

In spite of Director Tompeck’s assurances on Ms. Cavalcanti’s questions, a quick Google search by the Hometown News revealed the real answer on the internet-as-a-utility question not so cut and dry. Most of the country’s major broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast do not want the service regulated like a utility, and there is no utility-type regulation to-date. Although the Federal Communication Commission at one time defined internet service as a utility, it has subsequently backed off that position, even repealing its net neutrality rules just over a year ago that were implemented in 2015. That left the provision of services entirely up to the free market, and no states currently regulate internet service providers. Some online publications, such as The Guardian, believe it’s time the government takes the internet and broadband services out of private hands and treat them as utility services since the sector was originally created with taxpayer monies before it was privatized in the 1990s.

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