Election spat erupts over county internet

Once again, the Louisa County Broadband Authority is the subject of an election season controversy.

Bernie Hill, an authority member who is challenging Louisa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Toni Williams for his Jackson District seat, says Williams has not done enough to bring high-speed internet service to the eastern end of the county. Williams responded in an Aug. 15 statement that Hill has made “false statements” about the issue.

The authority has been working since it was founded in 2014 to build wireless towers to enhance broadband internet access, using a $1.09 million budget the supervisors allocated in January 2016. 

Williams voted against the funding, saying the county would be better off backing private-sector efforts to increase broadband service. Authority members have emphasized that while they are using taxpayer money to build the towers, a private company is providing the actual internet service.

Williams objected to a July 20 Facebook post in which Hill accused the incumbent of redirecting money intended for a Jackson District tower for another purpose. Hill also said Williams voted to approve a privately-owned cell phone tower, “effectively killing the prospects for a tower originally planned by the broadband authority.”

“It was announced during the broadband authority meeting on July 17, that no money is left in the budget for a wireless tower in the Jackson District,” Hill wrote on Facebook. “County leaders have decided to use the money designated for the Jackson District tower for wireless broadband elsewhere in the county. For example, in December 2018, [Williams] voted ... to approve a $550,000 grant for CVEC to run fiber in the western part of the County.”

Hill later walked back part of his post, admitting the $550,000 was not money that otherwise would have gone to the broadband authority. The supervisors granted Central Virginia Electric Cooperative that amount as a tax abatement to help them install fiber-optic lines for internet service in the western third of the county.

“It was not intended to say that [the board] took the money, but it was an example of other things he has done,” he said of Williams.

The privately-owned cell tower was proposed by Verizon Wireless off of Belsches Road, 1.7 miles east of Buckner-Bumpass Park. The authority had previously negotiated with National Communications Towers, of Richmond, to build a tower in the park and to lease space on it to the county for broadband service. 

But once the board approved the Verizon tower, in February 2019, the Richmond company backed out of the deal. There was no point in building two towers so close to each other, officials said.

Hill argued Williams didn’t have to vote for the Verizon tower, although a recent change in state law appears to make it nearly impossible for localities to oppose tower proposals.

“If I’d been on the board I would have voted against it,” Hill said.

The truth, Williams said in an Aug. 15 statement, is that his votes did not stop the broadband authority from fulfilling its mission. The reason a tower can’t be built at Buckner-Bumpass Park, he said, is that the authority only has $37,000 left out of the $1.09 million it was given. 

“The authority was granted funds to construct a tower in the Jackson District,” Williams wrote. “Should [it] not provide broadband coverage, it will be solely due to the failure to deliver on the plan which they themselves developed ... Bernie Hill’s attempt to deflect blame from himself to the board of supervisors was either intentionally deceptive or incredibly uninformed. ”

The original vision of the authority was to build up to 10 towers across the county to create a broadband network. Over time, costs escalated for various reasons, including President Trump’s steel tariff and unanticipated expenses like the need for gravel driveways to the towers. 

In response, the authority scrapped plans for towers near Gordonsville and Zion Crossroads, opting to locate on public safety towers instead. Rather than build a tower in the Yanceyville neighborhood, the authority negotiated to locate on a cell tower National Communications Towers is building off of Shannon Hill Road.

Five broadband towers are either built or in the planning stages, including those at Moss-Nuckols, Jouett and Trevilians elementary schools, Louisa County High School and on Gammon Town Road in Holly Grove. 

The last time broadband authority members found themselves in the middle of a political firefight was in 2017, when Duane Adams ran against Stephanie Koren for Mineral district supervisor. Adams challenged Koren for her support of the tower project; he argued fiber-optic lines would be a better investment of the county’s resources. 

Since Adams joined the board, he has been a regular participant in broadband meetings and has said he supports a variety of solutions to the internet problem.

Adams, like Williams, wasn’t happy with Hill’s Facebook post, and he made a point of responding to it during the Aug. 7 broadband authority meeting. 

“It’s coming out that [the board of supervisors] chose not to build [at Buckner-Bumpass Park],” Adams said. “[In fact] the broadband authority decided to put its money somewhere else.”

In his statement, Williams asserted that the authority had taken a vote to not build a tower in the park. But it’s not apparent from the authority’s meeting minutes that such a vote was taken, or that the authority made a recommendation to scrap the tower.

“I don’t think we made any type of decision or action, other than we knew [National Communications Towers] was going to back out, and we were going to contact Verizon about leasing space on their tower,” said Bob Hardy, the county’s information technology director.

Hill commented during the Aug. 7 meeting that it’s the supervisors, not the authority, that have the power to spend money and enter into contracts with private companies. 

SCS Broadband, based in Nelson County, is the anchor tenant on the broadband authority’s towers and has begun providing service from some of them. Clay Stewart, an SCS official, could not be reached by press time for an update on how many customers are receiving service via the towers.