The Cass County Commissioners ended the horror story of the Cass County Broadband Initiative Monday of this week. The initiative was sold as bringing high-speed internet to everyone, every rural resident, in the county. Unfortunately, the supposed return on the county’s investment was a fantasy. The initiative would never have been self-supporting and would have been a fiscal anchor in the county’s budget for the foreseeable future. I’ve written about this project before, here and here, as well as having a few Letters-to-the-Editor published in our county newspaper.
In a 2 to 1 vote, on Monday of this week, the Commissioners voted to disband the project.
Unfortunately, the spending can’t end yet. While the project existed, it put the county deeply in debt. The county will have to cover those debts or declare bankruptcy. The up side is that no more money will be thrown down the rathole.
The legal investigations on where the money went, for what, and who benefited, is ongoing. Several millions are still unaccounted for. At least three, at my last count, former county politicos, are under investigation. The FBI is involved because some of those missing funds were provided by the USDA.
For the last forty years, Cass County has been controlled by a political oligarchy—mostly democrats. That ended in 2010 when the ‘Pubs won all three commissioner seats. Unfortunately, one, the newly elected Presiding Commissioner, was ousted by the democrat Prosecutor, and the other two ‘Pubs were members of the oligarchy. Nothing changed except for the political labels. The only member who espoused conservative principles was the one booted out.
The vote to end the project did not go by party lines. Jeff Cox, the ‘Pub Presiding Commissioner, and Luke Scavuzzo, the dem South Associate Commissioner, voted to end Broadband. Jimmy Odom, the ‘Pub Northern Associate Commissioner, voted to continue spending and the project.
Scavuzzo had originally been in favor of the project. In favor, that is, until it was disclosed that the county did not own the Right-of-Way on the roads that were to be used to lay the fiber. The county had been maintaining these roads but did not own them. When the cost of adding easements for the fiber was added to the existing cost projections, it was too much.
I didn’t vote for Luke Scavuzzo. He’s in the county south and I’m in the north. I must say that he has impressed me since his initial appointment a year ago and his actions since winning his current position last November. Not that I’d vote for him. He’s still a dem.
Still, in this case, Luke Scavuzzo has demonstrated fiscal restraint and good practices. I wish I could say the same for the other ‘Pub associate commissioner.
Here’s the official report as it appeared in the Cass County Democrat Missourian.
Cass County broadband project dies
By Bethany Bashioum, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013
The Cass County Broadband Project initiative has lost all of its steam.
Cass County Commissioners decided Feb. 25 that there is little to no feasibility left for the county’s broadband project, and made the decision to ultimately kill it during a public meeting by a 2-1 vote.
The project, conceived two years ago, looked to build a broadband fiber network in order to bring high-speed Internet access to 11,592 households and 701 businesses in rural areas of the county.
But after swiftly moving through a short list of other agenda items during Monday’s meeting, Presiding Commissioner Jeff Cox entertained a motion to approve a resolution in regard to the county’s Request for Proposals with general contracting firms to take the broadband fiber to homes in rural Cass County.
Associate Commissioner Jimmy Odom made a motion for approval, but the question quickly died due to the lack of a second.
In response to the previous motion, the following agenda item, a resolution to authorize the publication and release the broadband project’s RUS Form 515 became moot.
A few moments later, Cox then asked the Commission for the authority to disband the project.
Associate Commissioner Luke Scavuzzo seconded the decision.
In a brief statement, Cox cited a number of reasons for his decision after spending nearly two months studying the project.
Part of the decision, he said, was linked to the issue that although the county has requested a 60-day extension to the United States Department of Agriculture for the county’s 2011 audit as well as releasing a reimbursement of $326,000 that the county has spent on recent engineering costs.
Cox said that to date, the USDA has refused to release those funds.
“USDA funding is still frozen and we’re continuing to incur engineering costs that are not being reimbursed from the federal government,” Cox said. “We’re basically at the point where we can either take the monies out of the general fund to pay the engineers or we can just default on our contract with the engineer. Or, we can take the money out of the Certificates of Participation, which are supposed to be used for non-USDA eligible costs.”
When Cox opened the floor for the other commissioners to voice their perspectives, Odom, who has supported the project for it’s prospect to enhance economic development in the county, said he wants to hear more about the audit issues and why the USDA funds aren’t being released.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in government where we’re that far behind and I would like to know why,” he said.
On the other hand, Scavuzzo voiced his disapproval of the project, but thanked Freeman for her work.
Concluding the discussion, the Commission carried the vote to disband the project 2-1.
Cox and Scavuzzo voted in favor of ditching broadband.
“Initially, what I will be doing will be notifying all the parties involved now that the Commission has given me the authority to do that,” Cox said. “We will then have to deal with getting all those final bills paid.”
Cox said that there are few options available to deal with the debt that’s been accumulated, one being that it can be rolled into the county’s existing COP funds since the county is already paying the full interest on those funds.
“I think we need to return our focus to providing the core services that county government is responsible for,” he said. “I think it’s important that we get out now while we still can afford to do so.”
The county should have never gotten into this project. Jeff Cox restated that this project did not fall into any core responsibilities of the county government.
“I think we should return our focus to providing the core services that county government has a responsibility to provide, such as road and bridge and law enforcement. The things that the people in the rural areas, that this initiative was meant to help, are the people that I have seen hurt the most out of all of this because all the money that has been diverted from those core services.”