Piedmont learns it should be collecting additional fees from information company
by Laura Gaddy
lbgaddy@annistonstar.com
Jan 17, 2014 | 3101 views |  0 comments | 89 89 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PIEDMONT — The City Council on Thursday learned new information about a contract that is central to a dispute about whether it should help schools pay for students’ wireless Internet access off campus.

According to city officials, a 10-year contract with Information Transport Solutions states that the company should pay the city between $3,100 and $3,400 monthly for use of city utility poles and electricity, but council members said they were unaware of the fee until Thursday, and the municipality has not billed the company for it since the contract was signed in January 2012.

Council members said if the city starts collecting the fee, which would be paid in addition to a monthly $6,500 cable usage fee the city collects from the company, it will make more sense for the city of Piedmont to help the schools in Piedmont pay for students’ wireless Internet.

Piedmont city officials, Piedmont public school officials and two company representatives attended the Thursday meeting, which lasted a little less than an hour. It was the third meeting in which the city has talked with school or company officials on the matter since August, and Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker said council members would have a chance to vote on the issue at an upcoming meeting.

“What we need to do is move forward,” Baker said. “We have to decide.”

At the center of the dispute has been a $6,250 monthly payment the city agreed to pay the schools. A measure passed by the council in 2011 said the city would make the payment for three years, but Piedmont stopped making the payments within a few months.

City officials said Thursday that former Mayor Rick Freeman called the payment off because it was intended to be a 20 percent match to a grant that expired early.

The grant officials referred to was valued at $867,000 and awarded by the Federal Communications Commission in 2011 to help establish a wireless Internet network throughout the city for students’ laptops.

Wireless Internet service is an essential component of the school system’s technology program, Superintendent Matt Akin has said.

Through the program, the schools have issued laptop computers to students in grades four through 12, educators have adopted new teaching techniques and the system has received national recognition for academic progress.

Information Transport Solutions signed on to help establish the wireless network when the schools received the federal grant.

Shortly after, the company signed its 10-year contract with the city, and in 2012 the city began billing the company $6,500 to use city cables for the project. Officials couldn't say with certainty why the city failed to bill the company for the remaining fees — the contract was drawn up under a previous administration — but called it an oversight.

After the city received the monthly $6,500 payment from the company, and paid its monthly $6,250 payment to the schools, it netted $250 each month. Now that city officials have identified between $3,100 and $3,400 in additional usage fees, the municipality stands to net even more money from the deal.

Company officials said Thursday that they would honor their contract with the city as long as it needed Piedmont’s cables and utility poles. But the schools are the company's only Piedmont customer, and Akin said Thursday that the schools can’t afford to keep paying for the students’ wireless Internet without assistance.

Councilman Kenny Kelley said would like to permanently discontinue the payment to the school, but not if that meant the schools would have to stop paying the company and the company would withdraw its payment to the city. Kelley and council members Frank Cobb and Brenda Spears have said they must prioritize fiscal responsibility for the city over the needs of the schools.

They have also said they want the city to help the schools when it can.

Other city leaders have said they want to reinstate the payment to the schools. One of the supporters, Councilman Mark Harper, said he had already decided to vote that way, but the revelation Thursday reinforced his decision.

“Now that we would get $3,400, I know I would support it,” Harper said.

For about a year, while the schools had grant funding, the company charged the schools $30,000 a month to pay for students’ at-home Internet service. When the grant funding ended, and the schools no longer had city support, the company negotiated a lower price with the schools.

Akin said the school system has since paid the entire cost for students’ wireless access, at the negotiated rate of $20,500 per month. Most of that money, $14,250, goes to Information Transport Solutions, and the remainder is paid to Verizon Wireless for students who must access the Internet through cellular networks because they live too far from the center of town.

Company representatives said Thursday that they have already cut the cost in half to keep Internet going for Piedmont students, and that the company can’t keep reducing the price for the school system.

“I’m at the bare bones now,” said Jeff Drury, who was representing the company.” We have already done all we can do to save and try to help the kids.”

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.

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