Left to right: Hays County Information Technology Director Jeff McGill, Broaddus and Associates Project Manager Terry Whitman, and a Brookside Technology Holdings Corporation representative Dan Parker. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County’s telecommunications provider, CenturyLink, is back-billing the county $175,609.44 for services rendered out-of-contract in the last 12 months.
The action comes on the heels of the company’s defeat in the competitive bidding process for a group of lucrative telecommunications contracts that the county awarded last week to Florida-based Brookside Technology Holdings Corporation, Japan-based NEC Corporation, and San Marcos-based Grande Communications. CenturyLink is headquarted in Louisiana.
Hays County Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy said the county is in “information gathering mode” at the moment and no litigation has been initiated.
CenturyLink — formerly CenturyTel before its merger with Embarq last year — sent the county a letter on April 16 informing it of the new charges.
“They asked in their letter that we respond to them by today regarding how we would like to make payment of that back-billing,” Kennedy said. “Instead of expressing what method we would like to use to pay, we said we would like to have a little bit more information about what the basis is for the back-billing. So that’s where we are right now — we’re seeking more information from them. In the meantime, we’re not under contract with them and haven’t been. They also, along with that back-billing, indicated that they’re going to be billing us at a new rate starting May 1. As far as I can tell, we will just take their rate … I don’t know that we have any other choice but to accept this new rate for the time in the interim, between now and when we switch over.”
Kennedy said CenturyLink claimed that its rate for an expired 60-month contract with the county was different than the month-to-month rate. The county has paid CenturyLink on a month-to-month basis for about the past 12 months. CenturyLink was among the county’s top three choices in the competitive bidding process leading up to the award of the telecommunications contracts.
“And now that they’re certain we’re going month-to-month, they’re going to go to a monthly rate,” Kennedy said. “I guess the question is, what happened between when the contract ended in ’09 and now, and is a back-billing of $175,000 legitimate and payable?”
CenturyLink representative Steve Hanik said the billing issue is complex.
“CenturyLink plans to work with Hays County as part of its information gathering, review the situation and current billing processes, and work toward a resolution,” Hanik said.
The county last week agreed to enter into agreements for voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) services from Brookside and NEC, which will cost $10,313.82 per month for 60 months, a total of $618,829.20. Under a rent-to-own-type provision in the contract, the county will acquire all attendant VoIP hardware for $1 at the end of the 60 months. As part of the same effort to upgrade the county’s telecommunications system, the court awarded a contract to Grande Communications for a transport layer security (TLS) broadband system for all county departments at a cost of $17,472.56 per month.
The county agreed to pay a $17,000, one-time fee to Grande Communications for installation of fiber optic cabling and related infrastructure to the Resource Protection, Transportation and Planning Department (RPTP) Building on Yarrington Road. Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) wondered last week if the county were unwisely paying for infrastructure that non-county customers may someday be using.
“Because I don’t mind paying for what’s our stuff, but if they’re going to oversize for those things, that doesn’t need to be a cost to the county — that needs to be on their sheet,” Conley said.
Broaddus and Associates Project Manager Terry Whitman said “I do not believe” Grande Communications intends to oversize its infrastructure installation to the RPTP building to provide additional capacity for new customers. As of early this month, the county paid Broaddus and Associates $36,863.67 for project management services associated with a study of the county’s telecommunications system. Whitman said the fiber optic cabling running to the RPTP Building would be dedicated to that facility.
“What I want to emphasize as we start this discussion is that with this action today, we are going to save the county money — big dollars — and get better service for employees that will really provide, I think, dramatic efficiency improvements for employees, while, at the same time, making it easier for people to get a hold of the right county officials,” Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said last week. “So it really is a three-for, in that sense — that we’re saving money, we’re getting more productivity in the long run, and we’re making it easier for the citizens of Hays County to get into their county government.”
Barton, who represented the commissioners court on the committee overseeing the development of a new county-wide telecommunications system, said the new hardware and services will provide, among other items, faster and better Internet connectivity, and new phone features, such as the ability of county staff and officials to redirect land line calls to their cell phones for more privacy.