Left to right, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (back to camera), Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, and Hays County Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County’s telecommunications provider has reversed its decision to back-bill taxpayers $175,609.44 for services rendered out-of-contract in the last 12 months, though some new charges received by the County Auditor’s office from CenturyLink have doubled.
Asked whether the new charges are normal for services rendered out of contract, replied Hays County Auditor Bill Herzog: “I wouldn’t know what normal is. But I wouldn’t think we should have to — I mean, they’re not giving us any new phones or anything. What justifies that?”
CenturyLink’s decision to back-bill the county and increase rates came after the firm lost in the competitive bidding process for a group of lucrative telecommunications contracts the county awarded in late April to Florida-based Brookside Technology Holdings Corporation, Japan-based NEC Corporation, and San Marcos-based Grande Communications. CenturyLink is headquartered in Louisiana.
The county’s new providers are setting up a more advanced telecommunications system, which will be on line in about 70 days. Herzog said the system is anticipated to be cheaper by thousands of dollars per month. Brookside and NEC will provide voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) services for $10,313.82 per month for 60 months, which totals $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. Grande Communications will provide a transport layer security (TLS) broadband system for all county departments at a cost of $17,472.56 per month.
CenturyLink plans to bill county offices separately in the interim period before the new system is on line. Some of the offices in the last month received new rates, all of which have doubled, according to Herzog.
For example, CenturyLink’s bill to the Hays County Human Resources Department shows increases of $6.42 to $47 for the monthly phone lease, $6 to $11 for each phone line, and $6 to $10 for voicemail service per line.
“It just seems outrageous to me,” Herzog said.
CenturyLink officials could not be reached for comment.
Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy said he recently asked CenturyLink officials if they would be interested in agreeing to a three-month contract to cover the interim period before the new system comes on line. Kennedy said he has not received a response yet.
“I think it’s expected that the rates would go up some,” Kennedy said. “We’re still trying to get a feel for how much that really is because we’re billed on each office.”
Said Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), “I think we were aware that there were going to be some extra costs. I hope that it’s not that much.”
CenturyLink — formerly CenturyTel before its merger with Embarq last year — sent the county a letter on April 16 informing it of the back-billing. The county responded by asking for more information about the basis for the new charges.
“I received a personal call from the management of CenturyLink, and they indicated that we would in no way shape or form be held responsible for paying any back-billing,” Kennedy said.
CenturyLink allows the Hays County Food Bank to use a warehouse for much-needed storage space. It was reported this month that CenturyLink sponsored San Marcos High School Student Amber Brown so she can join about 500 other young women attend a week-long American Legion Auxiliary program whereby they organize their own city, county and state governments in order to learn the duties of various public offices.
CenturyLink South Texas Manager John Navarrette sits on the board of the San Marcos Education Foundation (SMEF). Two months ago, CenturyLink awarded a lead gift to help kick-off SMEF’s annual fundraising campaign.